Contact tracing is broken and it’s the canary in the coal mine

Contact tracing is broken. 

Dr. Hinshaw told us on November 5th that contact tracers would now only be contacting people in “high priority settings.” Only the close contacts of health care workers, minors, and individuals who live or work within communal facilities (like long term care homes) would be notified that they had been exposed to COVID-19 and that they should self-quarantine. People sick with COVID in a non-priority setting were now expected to now do all of this on their own. 

Alberta’s team of contact tracers had worked diligently since March to do the epidemiological shoe-leather investigative work of finding out who COVID infected people had been in contact with and where, logging that information and contacting those people. Keeping track of who has COVID and where they’ve spread it has been the primary tactic used by every country and jurisdiction that has had any success against this bug. 

Yet an incredible 86 per cent of reported cases between Nov. 6 and 12 had an unknown source of suspected transmission. In Alberta, we’re flying blind. One contact tracer we spoke with even told us he was working on two-week old files. 

On Nov. 12 Tyler Shandro said that Alberta has posted 425 new positions to the contact tracing team. There are 22 positions posted on the Alberta Health Services careers website that have “COVID-19 contact tracing” in the job description. Even if 400 some contact tracers were hired tomorrow it would still take 3-5 weeks at minimum for them to get their police checks completed, get their training and be on the phones. 

“AHS and Shandro don’t want to admit that this has taken a toll on us, the contact tracers. We get threats, we get treated terribly,” said a contact tracer who wishes to remain anonymous. 

The ratio of good to bad calls is about 80/20. “But the 20 per cent sometimes take it very personally.”

“There is so much hostility to the government here it’s not like Jason Kenney is making calls. He wouldn’t last 5 minutes on the phone,” said the contact tracer.  

That’s just the manual side. On the digital side of things, the Premier continues to refuse the federal COVID tracking app, and is stubbornly keeping the province on its own proprietary version – a version that hasn’t been working since he hastily dumped a pile of money on consultants to avoid collaborating with hated foe Justin Trudeau months ago.

The Globe and Mail just revealed that the province’s app, ABTraceTogether, has identified only 70 close contacts in 19 cases since it launched in May. This means the app traced contacts in about 0.05 per cent of cases since it launched. 

I’ll leave you with the words of Dr. Carrie Kollias, a Canadian doctor living in Melbourne, Australia, a place that’s nearly eradicated COVID-19 after a successful lockdown. “Once you have overwhelmed contact tracing capabilities, the horse has bolted from the barn.”

It doesn’t have to be like this. Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, China have all done a far better job at containing COVID than we have. But on all sides it seems our Premier is constrained by problems of his own making – ideologically the conservatives refuse any of the real policy measures, like paid sick leave or a circuit breaker lockdown, that would help. Working with the federal government would require cooperating with Trudeau, and Kenney can’t have that, and most importantly, he has just too much of an ego to admit that his administration’s approach has been lazy and negligent.

Thanks to that negligence we’re entering a terrifying phase in the pandemic. COVID is still here, it’s spreading faster than ever, our hospital capacity is being overwhelmed and our best tool, contact tracing, is broken. 


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