Working as COVID-19 contact tracer becomes complex as cases with no known source increase

There are over 5,000 active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta and each case offers insight into how to better track the virus.

The number of active cases in the province hit 5,172 as of Friday

As COVID-19 cases climb in Alberta, it's becoming harder for contract tracers to track where Albertans got the virus. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

There are over 5,000 active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta and each case offers insight into how to better track the virus.

However, the job of tracing the origin is getting harder. Nearly half of active cases now have no known source.

Angela Jacobs, who is with the communicable diseases control branch at Alberta Health Services, told the Calgary Eyeopener there are 800 people working on the contact tracing team, but that the job has become more challenging.

How the job works

Jacobs says most contract tracers work remotely and spend their days making phone calls to individuals with COVID-19.

"They then chat with them about where they've been in the 14 days prior to their symptoms onset to see where they may have got the disease from," she said.

She says their team tries to ensure they talk to that individual within 24 hours of them receiving a positive test result from AHS, but sometimes that can be compromised.

"(There is) a delay in getting ahold of the case, they aren't able to answer the phone, whatever that might look like, which then further puts us behind," she said.

"So it really is important in those situations where if a case gets that positive notification and they're waiting, that they're putting together those close contact lists and they're reaching out to people that they know and letting them know."

Once the contract tracer gathers all of that information, it is documented and reported to AHS.

The practice sounds simple; however, Jacobs says that over time, the complexity of interactions began to change.

  • Check out the full interview on the Calgary Eyeopener below.
As COVID-19 cases climb in this province, it's becoming harder to track just where Albertans got the virus. We hear from Alberta Health Services on the challenges of contact tracing. 8:47

"When they give us the list of places they've been and there's maybe some warning bells going off in our head like, 'OK, well, this person maybe attends school or this person works maybe at a health-care facility or a high-risk employment scenario,'" she said.

"They attended a large gathering, maybe a wedding, and if they had events like that in the 14 days prior to their symptom onset and we don't know of a case in any place where they may have been in contact, we get worried about all of those events and places."

Albertans reluctant to share information

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said a few week prior that more Albertans are showing reluctance to share key information with contact tracers — including where they've been while infectious.

"It is understandable that people are tired of COVID and angry at the ways that their lives have been disrupted. Unfortunately, choosing not to work with contact tracers does not make that better. It makes it worse," Hinshaw said. 

"If you are diagnosed with COVID, please don't turn any understandable anger against the contact tracers, who are doing their job as part of a collective effort to maintain manageable levels of transmission."

Jacobs says this type of situation is not entirely unexpected but is something that they've seen more of compared with the beginning of the pandemic.

"We're not looking to lay blame, we're not looking to shame, we're not looking to lay people down with fines," she said.

"We're really calling people to work together with them to do the best that we can all do to protect the people that they care about and the people that are in their lives."

Jacobs says that, at the end of the day, contact tracers are trying to protect and support Albertans during these troubling times.

"They're all somebody's mom or dad or child or aunt or uncle or whatever the case might be.… If we know that we potentially prevented 20 or 100 people from being infected or exposed, that helps us sleep better at night." 

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


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