Alberta Health Services clears contact tracing bottleneck

Alberta Health Services is now following up with all Albertans who test positive for COVID-19 following a recruitment drive this winter.

Province now has more than 2,000 contact tracers

A public health nurse conducts a contact tracing phone call in Wyoming in this July file photo. As Alberta's COVID-19 daily numbers have fallen over January, contact tracers have been able to keep up with the demand. (Mike Moore/Gillette News Record/The Associated Press)

Alberta Health Services is now following up with all Albertans who test positive for COVID-19, following a recruitment drive for contact tracers this winter.

"AHS has seen significant improvement in our ability to contact trace positive cases of COVID-19," AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in an email statement Monday, adding that it comes due to a lower volume of new cases, the implementation of different notification systems like text and email, as well as active recruitment efforts.

In December, when new daily cases regularly exceeded 1,000 or even 1,500, AHS said it was only aiming to directly notify close contacts of health-care workers, minors, and individuals who live or work in communal facilities. 

But the province's COVID-19 situation has changed significantly since then. 

"Currently, AHS is able to contact and investigate all COVID-19 cases we receive each day," Williamson said.

Individuals who test positive are no longer being asked to notify close contacts themselves but are encouraged to enter them into a COVID-19 close contacts tool prior to a call from an investigator.

Williamson said the team can contact trace approximately 1,200 cases per day

From 15 to 2,000 tracers

At the beginning of the pandemic, the province's contact tracing team consisted of only 15 people. During the first wave that number grew to 400. Dr. Deena Hinshaw said in October there were more than 800 staff involved in contact tracing.

Recruitment through the winter has seen the team reach its target of 2,000 contact tracers as of Friday. Around 500 staff completed orientation during the last two weeks of January.

AHS is continuing to hire and train more tracers, Williamson said.

For cases associated with schools, Williamson said AHS is notifying all close contacts within 24 hours of receiving lists of those contacts from schools.

A spokesperson for the Calgary Board of Education said they had seen "significant improvement" in contact tracing timelines compared to November and December.

In a news conference last week, Superintendent Darrel Robertson of Edmonton Public Schools said since returning from the winter break AHS is typically contacting the division within a day or the same day the school becomes aware of a case.

On Monday, the province said there were 298 active alerts or outbreaks in schools with a total of 701 cases.

Alberta also reported 355 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of active cases to 7,387.

Of the 3,067 cases reported in the province from Jan. 25th to 31st, there are 1,051 listed on the province's COVID-19 website as having an unknown source. Hinshaw explained last month there will likely always be a proportion of cases listed as unknown because the virus can incubate for up to 14 days and it can take time for contact tracers to complete an investigation. 

Confidence looking forward

Dr. David Strong, a medical health officer for the provincial communicable disease program that oversees the contact tracing system in the province, says they are now in a good position to keep track of case numbers going forward.

"Certainly our numbers are down in terms of cases so we're certainly happy about that but we've upped our staff so we're keeping up with the case numbers we've been having," he told The Homestretch last week.

In December, there was a backlog of cases and a shortage of contact tracers.

"On average, we were able to do 370 cases a day, closing 370 cases a day. The week of January 22nd we were on average able to close about 630 cases a day and we had a peak where we did 1,000 cases in a day," he said.

Strong said he is confident the service will be able to keep up with numbers like those seen during the last surge should cases rise again.

He says the original contact tracers were public health nurses, but over time AHS started hiring regulated health professionals like LPNs, pharmacists, and even dietitians.

"They are all regulated professionals. And then in December to be able to get where our workforce needed to be we started hiring non-regulated people. So these are just basically anybody in the public."

For those interested in the position, Strong says they still need to show a certain level of skill such as being able to communicate with the public and possibly a post-secondary degree.

With files from Natalie Valleau