Alberta's contact tracers are now overwhelmed at a critical time, infectious disease expert says

Alberta is moving in the wrong direction when it comes to new cases of COVID-19, an infectious disease expert warns, and the province is unequipped to effectively contact trace at this time.

Effective Friday, contact tracing in the province will focus on high-priority settings only

Heather Griggs, an operations chief of the Umatilla County Public Health Department COVID-19 contact tracing center in Pendleton, Ore., shown at work on July 14, 2020. In Alberta contact tracers have not been able to identify a source of transmission for 39 per cent of active cases (Ben Lonergan/The Associated Press)

Alberta is moving in the wrong direction when it comes to new cases of COVID-19, an infectious disease expert warns, and the province is unequipped to effectively contact trace at this time.

"Over the last two weeks, we've essentially tripled our cases," said Craig Jenne, an associate professor at the University of Calgary in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases. 

"So not only is each case taking a lot of time, but we have three times as many cases to contact trace. And simply, the manpower cannot keep up with it."

Alberta broke another COVID-19 record Thursday, recording "about 800" new cases over the past 24 hours.

Cases are so high in Alberta that contact tracers will no longer notify people who have been found to be in close contact to an infected person, unless they are deemed to be linked to a "high-priority setting."

That means effective Nov. 6, Alberta's team of contract tracers will focus only on those high-priority settings, such as hospitals, schools and continuing care homes.

Craig Jenne, who teaches microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary, says the province is going to need to effectively prioritize its testing or quickly onboard additional contact tracers in the province. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Every confirmed case of COVID-19 will still receive a call from AHS, but if they don't have connections to priority groups, Albertans will be asked to notify their own contacts.

Event organizers are also being asked to notify guests of exposures, and workplaces will be contacted by AHS should cases be detected so that employers can notify employees.

The province also provided Albertans with a script to use when notifying close contacts about confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Province seeking to hire more tracers

Jenne said though the province is prioritizing contact tracing in the most sensitive places, cases that go without tracing can continue to spread the virus.

"People may not be aware they've been exposed. They may continue to go to work and spread the virus even further," Jenne said. 

"So when we're trying to bring numbers back under control, this is really not an optimal situation at all."

Speaking Thursday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said the new measures represented an interim solution until AHS was able to hire more tracers.

"This is a critical juncture. We need to change the trend in this province," Hinshaw said.

Kerry Williamson, AHS spokesperson, said the province currently has 800 staff on its contact tracing team, including full-time, part-time, redeployed and casual staff.

"AHS is in the process of hiring approximately 380 additional staff over the next few weeks, bringing us to more than 1,100 staff conducting contact tracing," he said in an email.

Find out which neighbourhoods or communities have the most cases, how hard people of different ages have been hit, the ages of people in hospital, how Alberta compares to other provinces and more in: Here are the latest COVID-19 statistics for Alberta — and what they mean

Jenne said that any reduction in contact tracing handcuffs the province's ability to control outbreaks — and the rise in cases is happening at a critical time with flu season approaching.

"We're only realistically six weeks or so from the holiday season, where we know people will gather with family, and we'll have a very high viral load … it's the perfect storm for further problems," Jenne said.

"It's time to take recommendations very seriously or be prepared for closures. We are getting to the point where this will likely not be manageable for too much longer."

Tracing apps

There is also still no timeline on when Alberta will move from its provincial COVID-19 tracing app to the national app.

Earlier this week, Premier Jason Kenney said health officials are reluctant to move from the ABTraceTogether to the federal government's COVID Alert app because it does not feed information to contact tracers in Alberta, adding that the province "hasn't made a final decision" on that front.

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Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on 630 CHED radio that Alberta's government was standing in the way of the province adopting the federal app.

Dr. Amy Tan, a spokesperson with the advocacy group Masks4Canada who was a family doctor in Calgary until last week, said now is the time for changes in the province, like the adoption of the federal app.

"I think, at this point, Alberta needs a short, hard lockdown to circuit break, to be perfectly honest," Tan said. "Because this is getting out of control. But without contact tracing, it will never be able to get to a point of being managed."

Alberta has reported a total of 2,783 new cases of COVID-19 over the past five days.

With files from Jennifer Lee and Janet French