‘Our contact-tracing system has never collapsed’: AHS CEO defends COVID-19 response

Click to play video: 'Calls for more transparency over Alberta’s contact tracing issues' Calls for more transparency over Alberta’s contact tracing issues

Experts say the Alberta government should have been more forthcoming about the magnitude of its contact tracing issues during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Julia Wong explains in Part 2 of her investigation, they say the collapse of the system ultimately led to more cases and likely more deaths.

The head of Alberta Health Services defended the agency’s contact-tracing system Tuesday after a Global News investigation on a backlog of cases during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Internal AHS documents obtained by Global News revealed the extent of the growing backlog of cases for contact tracers during the second wave and that its workforce was insufficient to keep up with soaring case numbers.

Read more: Contact tracing in Alberta’s 2nd wave: Documents show huge backlog, staff shortages

Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request quantify, for the first time, how overwhelmed contact tracers were in November and December, and reveal that the backlog of cases to be traced grew to 23,527 on Dec. 11, 2020; it also uncovered that there were insufficient numbers of contact tracers working during the second wave, including a shortage of 2,020 on Dec. 7, 2020.

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Click to play video: 'Contact tracing backlog in Alberta’s 2nd wave' Contact tracing backlog in Alberta’s 2nd wave

Contact tracing backlog in Alberta’s 2nd wave

Dr. Verna Yiu, president and CEO of AHS, responded to “suggestions AHS failed to prioritize contact tracing as a key tool in its pandemic response” with:

“Nothing could be further from the truth.”

She said Tuesday that since the start of the pandemic, AHS identified contact tracing as a “vital way to track community spread,” track transmission and protect Albertans.

Read more: Coronavirus: Alberta to address contact tracing delays with new online portal

“Contact tracing has been one of the cornerstones in our pandemic response, but it has always been one cornerstone. Contact tracing by itself does not bring down case numbers,” Yiu said.

However, experts have said that Albertans who did not know they were a close contact did not isolate and may have been spreading the virus unknowingly in the community.

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COVID-19 testing, PPE use, public health restrictions, masking, physical distancing, isolating when sick, hand washing and now, vaccines, are the most effective protection measures, Yiu said.

Read more: Notley presses Kenney on contact tracing during Alberta’s 2nd wave

The challenges with the contact-tracing capacity were discussed during Monday’s question period at the Alberta legislature.

“The premier and the health minister repeatedly claimed in this house, as early as Oct. 27, that they had 800 contact tracers,” NDP leader Rachel Notley said. “Now, thanks to Global News, we have proof this wasn’t true.

“In fact, as cases exploded at the outset of the second wave, the real number was closer to 330.”

Yiu said Tuesday that AHS “aggressively recruited” contact tracers as cases climbed.

Click to play video: 'Surge in COVID-19 cases has AHS asking most people who test positive to notify their own close contacts' Surge in COVID-19 cases has AHS asking most people who test positive to notify their own close contacts

Surge in COVID-19 cases has AHS asking most people who test positive to notify their own close contacts – Nov 6, 2020

The Global News investigation shows that the backlog of COVID-19 cases for contact tracers climbed steadily from 2,053 on Nov. 2, 2020 to 23,527 on Dec. 11, 2020. That same day, an AHS report indicated that it would take 340 days for contact tracers to clear all cases.

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The reports also indicate that on Nov. 16, 1,260 full-time equivalent contact tracers were required to handle the caseload; but only 331 staff were working that particular day.

By Dec. 7, the staffing issue was still not resolved — AHS reports indicate 2,264 staff were required to deal with the caseload; only 244 were working.

A graph showing the contact tracing shortage in Alberta during November and December 2020. Tonia Gloweski/Global News

In March 2020, the team consisted of 50 tracers; in July, it grew to 300, she said. By September, there were 700 tracers; and 1,250 by December.

At the start of December, Yiu said the health authority had more than 900 contact tracers and was aiming to have 1,600 by the end of 2020, though that ultimately did not happen.

Read more: 1,123 new COVID-19 cases reported Wednesday as Alberta contact-tracer goal falls short

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On Tuesday, Yiu said 1,000 new staff completed orientation in January 2021. AHS said it now has approximately 2,500 contact tracers.

“It is true that we did experience some challenges last November and December, when case numbers spiked.

“However, AHS continued to complete case investigations and contact tracing throughout the second wave,” she said, adding teams called and completed investigations on all high-priority cases, added automatic notification for close contacts and was transparent with Albertans about the lags.

Click to play video: 'AHS president on COVID-19 contact tracing: ‘We are doing everything that we can to manage this’' AHS president on COVID-19 contact tracing: ‘We are doing everything that we can to manage this’

AHS president on COVID-19 contact tracing: ‘We are doing everything that we can to manage this’ – Dec 4, 2020

On Tuesday, Yiu stressed AHS recruited and onboarded staff as quickly as possible, and restrictions helped reduce community spread and case numbers.

“Contact tracing was able to catch up with the number of daily cases and we were again able to trace every case.”

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During the peak of the first wave, Yiu said AHS had 95 staff working on any given day; during the peak of the second wave, there were 551 staff. Internal AHS reports during that time indicate the health authority was consistently short more than 1,000 contact tracers from Nov. 23, 2020 to Dec. 23, 2020.

Click to play video: '2nd wave contact tracing problems larger than Alberta officials admitted to: FOIP documents' 2nd wave contact tracing problems larger than Alberta officials admitted to: FOIP documents

2nd wave contact tracing problems larger than Alberta officials admitted to: FOIP documents

During the peak of the third wave, there were 1,902 people working.

“Our contact-tracing system has never collapsed — far from it — and such a suggestion does a disservice to our hard-working and dedicated teams who have done incredible work during all three waves,” Yiu said.

During the peak of the third wave, she said more than 2,400 cases were investigated in one day, and on many occasions, contact tracers investigated over 2,000 cases a day.

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“They were able to reach people who had tested positive within two to five hours 80 per cent of the time.

“This is an amazing achievement and we should celebrate their work.”

Read more: Alberta adds more contact tracers, can now trace every COVID-19 case

Since Jan. 9, 2021, contact tracers have been able to investigate every COVID-19 case within 24 hours of being informed of a positive test.

As cases are declining, AHS will adjust the contact-tracing capacity but will “maintain a robust team.

“If numbers surge, we increase capacity. If numbers drop, we will shift staff to other areas that need more support.”

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