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Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw, seen here in Edmonton on March 20, 2020, says she wants people who test positive for COVID-19 to be notified within 12 hours.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta, which is struggling to pinpoint sources for hundreds of new coronavirus infections, intends to beef up its contact-tracing team, according to the provincial health authority.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) plans to hire 140 contact tracers over the next several weeks, spokesman Kerry Williamson said. This is on top of the 560 people AHS expects to be on the team by the end of the week. In April, when the first wave of the pandemic hit the province, about 440 people were assigned to investigate infections.

AHS has been slow to identify the roots of a burst of new COVID-19 cases in the Edmonton zone, 405 between Aug. 11 and Aug. 17. While the number of new daily cases is now lower than it was in April, AHS is expanding its detective unit because investigations have become more complex. People widened their social circles after public-health restrictions eased and pandemic fatigue set in. They are also travelling more. This means it takes contact tracers longer to determine who may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, giving the virus more time to spread.

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“It is taking longer than we would like right now,” Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer, told reporters on Tuesday. “We’re working on resolving that.”

Dr. Hinshaw wants people who test positive for COVID-19 to be notified within 12 hours. Sometimes, to get the results out as soon as possible, AHS splits notification calls from contact-tracing calls, she said.

Now, 78 per cent of people who test positive are notified by contact tracers within 24 hours, AHS said. The rest receive word within 48 hours. Contact-tracing investigations start within 48 hours of test results in 43 per cent of cases, AHS said, and the rest generally begin within 72 hours. A contact-tracing investigation currently takes about six hours, AHS said.

British Columbia last week said it was hiring 500 contact tracers.

Alberta has 1,169 active COVID-19 cases, and the Edmonton region accounts for 636 of those. Mayor Don Iveson on Tuesday said he was “concerned and disappointed” with the rising case count.

“We’re reaching out to [AHS] to get more details on this rise in cases so we can help protect communities most at risk,” he said in a tweet.

Dr. Hinshaw last week said investigators needed more time to identify the sources. On Tuesday, she pointed to several social events.

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Alberta has linked 15 cases to a prayer gathering dubbed It Is Time Canada on the August long weekend near Deadwood, a hamlet in the northwestern part of the province. B.C. has tied 17 COVID-19 cases to the event. Dr. Hinshaw said about 200 to 300 people attended, and she expects more related cases.

Edmonton’s Bible Pentecostal Church is the source of a separate outbreak, with 15 confirmed cases, she said. About 150 people worship at the church, Dr. Hinshaw said. Further, Alberta has traced 26 cases to a private gathering and 17 to another.

“It is a stark reminder that coming together in large gatherings risks sharing more than fellowship,” she said. “It risks sharing the COVID-19 virus.”

In central Alberta, a meat-processing plant sent more than a dozen employees home after a worker tested positive for the virus last week.

The employee at the Olymel facility in Red Deer was sent home and told to get tested after showing symptoms of COVID-19 on Aug. 11, a company spokesman said. Richard Vigneault said the positive result came in two days later, and 13 other employees were tested. Mr. Vigneault said the company expects the results soon.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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