Curious about contact tracing? AHS manager breaks down the job that keeps getting tougher

The number of contact tracers in Alberta has risen to about 1,000, with hundreds joining Alberta Health Services since mid-July.

Lori Henneigh explains how the investigators on her team maintain motivation

Lori Henneigh is an acting manager for an Alberta Health Services COVID-19 outbreak team in Red Deer. (Submitted by Lori Henneigh)

The number of contact tracers in Alberta has risen to about 1,000, with hundreds joining Alberta Health Services since mid-July.

Lori Henneigh, acting manager with an AHS COVID-19 outbreak team in Red Deer, spoke about the job with CBC Edmonton host Adrienne Pan on Wednesday.

Henneigh explained why contact tracing is getting harder and what keeps the investigators on her team going.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What were you doing with AHS prior to the COVID outbreak?

A: Prior to the COVID outbreak, I was the manager with our province-wide CDC team, so doing contact tracing and follow-up for other diseases that are communicable within our communities.

Q: Is being a contact tracer a bit like being Sherlock Holmes?

A: Yes, it very much is. In fact, we call the people who do the contact tracing "case investigators" because they really do investigate a number of things. They investigate the case that puts them at risk for the disease and where they were likely exposed to the disease itself, so we can identify some common exposures that may be putting other people at risk. We also investigate whom they have also exposed so that we can ask those individuals to self-isolate, watch for symptoms and be tested. We do a lot of investigation. 

Q: How does a typical conversation with someone go?

A: First of all, we start by acknowledging that they are a case and answering any questions that they have about being a case. Often there's some anxiety with that. Then we start asking some questions about their health and their health status. Then we look at what activities they were involved in in the last 14 days prior to their symptom onset. The 14 days prior tells us the incubation period or the time in which they may have been developing disease from an exposure. We look at their activities in those 14 days. We also look at what activities they've done from 48 hours before their symptom onset to the time in which they were self-isolated. That can tell us whom they might have possibly exposed when they were symptomatic or infectious. 

Q: How good are people at remembering what they did 14 days ago? 

A: Yeah, that's not easy. If you think about it yourself, if you try to think about what you did in the last 14 days, you'll realize that it's not easy to recollect what you did two weeks prior. We certainly can ask them to look at statements — bills, receipts and things they have at home — to help them remember their activities in the last 14 days. 

Q: Has this got a lot more complicated because restrictions have been lifted, people are going out more and seeing other people more? 

A: You bet. As the province reopens, they're coming in contact with more people on a daily basis. 

Q: So given that, like how long could a typical call last?

A: The call itself can take a considerable amount of time. It can be 45 minutes to an hour to go through all of that. We may need to phone people back as they may need to step away and think about some of the questions that we've asked and gather some of the information about their contacts. 

Q: How many cases are you expected to get through in a day?

A: The average contact tracer will generally get through one or two in a day. It really depends on the complexity of the case. Early on, when people were staying at home and all they had for contacts were household contacts, for the most part, we could probably get through three or even four in a day. But now that people are out and about and we're gathering more information on their activities and who they were in contact with, it does take us longer. 

Knowing that this is important work and that we're reducing the spread of infection keeps us going.- Lori Henneigh, AHS

Q: How do you keep yourself going when you're doing this kind of tough work day after day? 

A: I think knowing that this is important work and that we're reducing the spread of infection keeps us going, especially when we're passionate about doing this type of work. 

Q: Are more contact tracers needed right now and what's happening on that front? 

A: Certainly, as our case counts go up, we would need more individuals, so we are working always to ensure that we have the adequate number of staff to meet the needs within our communities, based on the number of cases that we're seeing every day.