Sask. contact tracing 'strained,' with thousands of cases' sources not confirmed

·4 min read

"Strained" and "challenging" are among the words being used to describe contact tracing efforts as Saskatchewan experiences a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases.

Modelling released by the province last week said the source of exposure for 2,190 cases of COVID-19 was still "pending." Of those, 1,062 were for the period of Nov. 9 to 15.

The source of exposure for another 285 of the total number of cases to date was labelled "unknown." At the time there had been 5,001 total known cases in the province. As of Tuesday there had been 6,883.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) and the provincial Ministry of Health have not yet provided responses to questions sent by CBC News on Friday. Those questions included a request for the definition of "pending" in the provincial modelling.

The SHA also did not confirm the length of contact tracing delays in a response to previous questions earlier this month.

If the numbers get to a point where they're so out of hand and literally you have a week or a week and a half go by then, yeah, it probably actually does make sense to let them go. - Dr. Alexander Wong, infectious disease specialist

School documents last week revealed the SHA now requires all classmates of students who test positive for COVID-19 to self-isolate for 14 days. Previously only certain students that were considered close contacts had to self-isolate.

"In the attempt to manage the increased cases along with the challenges of contacting everyone in a timely manner, the SHA has updated its procedures with regards to positive cases in classrooms," the document said.

Data shows testing, contact tracing 'critical'

Dr. Alexander Wong, an infectious disease specialist in Regina, said the public health system is strained, with some workers doing 16- to 18-hour days.

He said there is a "huge push" to increase the amount of contact tracing capacity, but he expects there will be ongoing challenges.

"Contact tracing is absolutely critical … along with testing, to really help to mitigate the ongoing transmission of COVID-19," said Wong.

"We have very, very clear data and clear modelling that shows that these two components are the most critical pieces, along with all of the various measures in terms of physical distancing, wearing a mask and so forth."

He said Saskatchewan's situation with the virus is not far behind Manitoba and Alberta, which have the second and third-highest COVID-19 transmission rates in Canada.

Alberta gives up on contact tracing 3,000 cases

Starting Tuesday, Alberta Health Services (AHS) is temporarily giving up on investigating contacts for people who received their positive test result more than 10 days ago.

There are currently 11,500 people on the waitlist and about 3,000 of them will not be investigated due to the backlog.

Wong said a similar approach could be worthwhile in Saskatchewan if required.

"If the numbers get to a point where they're so out of hand and literally you have a week or a week and a half go by then, yeah, it probably actually does make sense to let them go because most of those patients will have likely recovered and probably not be infectious any longer," said Wong.

Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said last week that contact tracing is becoming "challenging."

Sask. getting federal help

The province said the number of provincial staff working on contact tracing has increased from 60 to 400. It is not clear over what period of time that increase occurred.

Health Minister Paul Merriman said more than 20 provincial staff have been redeployed for contact monitoring and another 40 have been made available to assist with negative result notification and data entry.

Merriman said every confirmed case of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan has an average of 11 close contacts.

The SHA is working with the federal government to get more contact tracing resources, including approximately 30 to 40 staff from Statistics Canada. CBC has requested more information about this agreement.

CBC News Graphics
CBC News Graphics

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