Alberta contact tracing teams scaled back as COVID case numbers fall

·3 min read
This file photo shows Heather Griggs at work as operations chief of the Umatilla County Public Health Department contact tracing centre in Pendleton, Ore. In Alberta, some contact tracing staff who had been deployed to help are being returned to their normal jobs. (Ben Lonergan/The Associated Press - image credit)
This file photo shows Heather Griggs at work as operations chief of the Umatilla County Public Health Department contact tracing centre in Pendleton, Ore. In Alberta, some contact tracing staff who had been deployed to help are being returned to their normal jobs. (Ben Lonergan/The Associated Press - image credit)

With COVID-19 case counts the lowest they've been since last summer, contact tracing teams remain in place but are being scaled back as the province prepares to reopen July 1.

United Nurses of Alberta president Heather Smith says some nurses have been moved out of contact tracing and back to their normal jobs.

"None have been laid off but some have been redeployed to other areas," she said. "I suspect that some may have been asked to go into the vaccine program as well, which is obviously a huge area of demand right now."

Alberta Health Services said it is developing contact tracing plans for the next several months, and contact tracing capacity can be increased or decreased as needed.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said Tuesday there is a reduction in demand for contract tracing as cases in the province continue to drop with increased vaccine uptake.

"Right now, the contact tracers are not being laid off," she said. "Some of that workforce is able to be deployed to other areas while the demands are lower for contact tracing, and we're working with Alberta Health Services to plan forward."

Processes will remain in place as the province begins fully reopening on July 1, while future planning will depend on what unfolds in Alberta and around the world in the coming months.

"There may be some changes in terms of what we require in contact tracing," Hinshaw said.

"But in the short term, we are keeping the system intact, making sure that we're watching closely over the next month, as we see the impacts of Stage 3."

Alberta should be prepared to act quickly, doctor says

Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta Hospital, said the province's contact tracers played a crucial role in keeping COVID-19 under control.

She said it makes sense to redeploy people as cases drop, but it is important that as Alberta reopens, it remains vigilant about the numbers and prepared to react quickly.

And with the highly transmissible delta variant now in Alberta, having resources to thoroughly investigate each new case will be critical.

"If we start to see increasing numbers of cases, and we start to see more hospitalizations, then I think that would be a time when we're probably going to have to start to increase the numbers of contact tracers we have available," she said.

Meanwhile, the UNA's Heather Smith said she has heard concern from health-care workers that the province is moving too quickly toward reopening.

She said it stems from staffing shortages, large events like the Calgary Stampede, and the lifting of health measures such as the mask mandate, rather than fewer contact tracers.

"I'm very confident in AHS's ability to very quickly be very nimble in terms of redeployment back to contact tracing if they are needed," she said.

"People have been moved based on need, and they recognize that … [but] I think there is a concern that we are not being prudent in terms of what is potentially out, still, in our communities."

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