The second wave of COVID-19 infections continues to surge across North America, and it’s starting to overwhelm health officials’ ability to trace all of the contacts of confirmed cases.
After health Toronto officials announced they were suspending some contact tracing in early October, now an entire province has suspended the practice, except in the most critical cases.
Following a record day where around 800 new cases were confirmed — an inexact number due to technical difficulties — Alberta’s chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced that the province will be suspending the majority of contact tracing efforts.
“Unfortunately, as cases have risen rapidly, we are experiencing challenges in our contact tracing teams. AHS does not currently have the capacity to call every contact of every case, in a timely way,” Hinshaw said Thursday.
Previously, teams of health officials worked to contact every close contact of each confirmed case in order to have those people isolated and tested before spreading the virus to others. Alberta Health Services (AHS) confirmed the shift in a release, calling the new volume of cases “unprecedented.”
″(Our) contact tracing team is working tirelessly to meet demand,” AHS said. “However, to help this team – and the health of our communities – we are engaging Albertans to support contact tracing efforts.”
The province also announced it will hire nearly 400 new contact tracers in the coming weeks to keep up with demand.
“Unfortunately, as cases have risen rapidly, we are experiencing challenges in our contact tracing teams. AHS does not currently have the capacity to call every contact of every case, in a timely way.”
Under the new system, tracers will only reach out to close contacts of a confirmed case if the infected person is a health-care worker, a school-aged child or an individual who lives or works in a communal facility.
For everyone else, you’ll be personally responsible for informing your close contacts. And as the second wave of COVID-19 continues to surge across Canada, many other Canadians may soon find themselves tasked with tracking down their own contacts.
Thankfully, AHS has released an online guide to tracing your own contacts if you test positive for COVID-19.
Here’s what you need to know.
Why is contact tracing important?
Contact tracing is crucial to containing the spread of an infectious virus like COVID-19. By contacting the close contacts of a confirmed case, it means people are more likely to get tested, self-isolate and prevent further spread of the virus. Multiple studies have shown the value of contact tracing in containing the virus, especially when businesses and restrictions are lifted.
What is a close contact?
According to AHS, a close contact is defined as someone who was within two metres of a confirmed case for more than 15 minutes, even if you both were wearing masks. A close contact can also be someone who came into contact with a confirmed case’s bodily fluids (if you sneeze on them, for example) or provided them care. So if your partner is looking after you while you have COVID-19, they are a close contact.
Some sports also count, if it’s something that involves close sustained contact.
How do I know who my close contacts are?
Ideally there aren’t a lot of them because you’ve been sticking to recommended cohort or “bubble” size numbers and avoiding situations that can lead to a high amount of transmission.
But, even then, AHS has some advice. The health service recommends keeping a list of the contact information of everyone you have close contact with, so it’s easily accessible should you or someone in your bubble test positive.
“You will need to look back at your calendar and identify anyone who you were in close contact with … in the two days leading up to when you became sick (or two days before you had your COVID-19 swab taken if you didn’t have any symptoms) and any days since you started experiencing symptoms or after you had your swab taken (if you didn’t have any symptoms),” AHS says.
How do I reach out to my close contacts?
It is very important you reach out to close contacts as soon as you test positive, so they can take their own precautions and get tested as well.
AHS has provided both phone and email scripts for reaching out to people if you’re nervous about how to talk about it. Key points to touch on include noting that you yourself tested positive, giving them information about getting tested and self-isolating and clarifying the days you were in contact and the day you tested positive. It’s also important to ask for privacy for yourself and others.
If you attended an event like a wedding or party while infectious, in Alberta it is now your responsibility to reach out to the event organizer and have them contact other attendees.
AHS has also developed a webpage with more info for close contacts.
If you’re outside Alberta, check with your local health authority for the best information to send to your contacts.