Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver here this morning.
Last April, when Alberta rolled out its mobile app aimed at facilitating contact tracing for COVID-19, the government touted it as an important, technological tool to help curb the spread of the virus, the first of its kind in North America.
“The faster Alberta Health Services contact tracers can inform exposed people or close contacts, the quicker we will be able to prevent potential outbreaks and identify when Albertans must self-isolate,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said when it was launched.
But the performance of the app has fallen far, far short of the hopes for its potential, as Calgary reporter Carrie Tait reported this week.
She learned that the app, known as ABTraceTogether, has been used in only 19 of the province’s COVID-19 cases and has managed to help identify only 70 close contacts. This means the app was used to trace contacts in about 0.05 per cent of cases since May, when it launched. The federal app has fared better, though not by much: that app has been deployed to warn people of potential exposure to the virus in roughly 5 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Ontario since that province adopted the program at the end of July.
Part of the reason for the disappointing performance for the Alberta app is simply because so few Albertans have chosen to download it. That could be in part because of confusion over Alberta’s app while the federal government is touting its own technology. As well, the Alberta app has had some technical difficulties which make it cumbersome to use. Out of Alberta’s population of 4.4 million, the app had roughly 251,000 registered users in the province in early November. Experts calculate that controlling COVID-19 requires between 56 per cent and 95 per cent of the population to adopt contact-tracing apps and follow public-health guidelines, according to a study published in The Lancet, Carrie writes.
What this all means is that Alberta contact tracers are on their own in terms of hunting down and informing people who may have been exposed to the virus. With cases surging – on Tuesday, the province reported 773 new cases – those people are simply overwhelmed.
Carrie obtained an e-mail sent by an Edmonton principal to parents. Students in Grades 7, 8 and 9 at Parkview School had been sent home Nov. 9 to self-isolate after two people tied to the school tested positive for the virus. By Sunday – more than a week later – the school’s principal wrote that she had still not heard from Alberta Health Services.
“Without confirmation from AHS I am unable to officially confirm the length of time of the quarantine for our students and staff,” she said in the e-mail obtained by The Globe and Mail.
AHS spokesman Kerry Williamson, without referring specifically to Parkview, said the health authority notifies close contacts in school settings as quickly as possible.
“The steep increase in numbers of cases and outbreaks across the province has stressed the contact tracing resources, resulting in lengthier times between case confirmation and close contact notification,” he said.
With contact tracers overwhelmed, widespread cases of the virus have forced the closures of some 500 continuing care beds, creating a bottleneck in the broader health care system that could soon translate to reduced access to elective surgeries.
Continuing care facilities, which include home care, supportive living, long-term care, hospice, and end-of-life care facilities, have closed the beds in an effort to contain the virus. That means the people that would normally fill those beds are stuck in hospital beds which would otherwise be available to patients with more acute needs.
This pressure is compounded as hospitals in Calgary and Edmonton close beds in rooms that normally accommodate three or four patients to create makeshift isolation spaces for COVID-19 patients. The looming worry is that all of the pressures, compounded with case counts that continue to rise, will force surgery cancellations as hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary brace for more virus patients. Already in Edmonton, roughly 30 per cent of elective surgeries are being postponed to manage the load.
Acute care facilities in Alberta’s two largest cities frequently exceed capacity right now, and some units are running at 125-per-cent occupancy.
“Ultimately, we need Albertans to work hard to reduce the amount of COVID-19 transmission in our communities to ensure we have the capacity to care for those who need it most,” Alberta Health Services said in a Nov. 13 memo to medical staff.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.
AROUND THE WEST
COVID-19 IN SASKATCHEWAN: The president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses is calling for a two-week shutdown of certain businesses to give the health-care system some time to manage a recent increase of COVID-19 infections. Tracy Zambory says members are worried because intensive care units in Saskatoon – where many of the new cases are located – are running at 130 per cent capacity. The Saskatchewan Health Authority has said that, based on the test positivity rate, it’s preparing for more people to be hospitalized and to need intensive care over the next couple of weeks.
COVID-19 IN MANITOBA: Dr. Brent Roussin said the Christmas school break may be extended by a couple of weeks so that students do not return to school right after the holidays. The changes are being considered because hospitals are running close to capacity and the health care system is being strained. Dr. Roussin added that people should be staying home more, and he is looking at tightening the rules that allow many stores to remain open, as well as a reduction to the formal limit of five people for gatherings. Premier Brian Pallister said the province is hiring a private security firm to help the array of police, conservation and bylaw officers who enforce the COVID-19 restrictions.
SKI HILLS: Western Canadians tired of isolating at home are filling the slopes at mountain ski resorts that have opened earlier than usual despite worries about surging cases of COVID-19. Two Banff National Park resorts have had their earliest openings on record thanks to the combination of abundant snowfall and the cold temperatures needed for machine-made snow – 95-year-old Banff Norquay opened Oct. 24 and Lake Louise, about 40 years old in its current form, opened Oct. 29. Ski areas are generally requiring guests to wear masks while lining up, riding the ski lifts and warming up indoors to control coronavirus spreading. Rules vary on how many people are allowed on chair lifts and gondolas and whether you can buy tickets at the resort.
TRAVEL TO VANCOUVER ISLAND: Vancouver Island’s Chief Medical Health Officer is calling for a cutoff of unnecessary travel between the island and the rest of the province to counter the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Richard Stanwick said in an interview on Monday that travel has contributed “significantly” to the burden of the pandemic virus on Vancouver Island, with 66 cases between Sept. 1 and Nov. 10 linked to people travelling elsewhere. During a news conference on Monday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry urged against any unnecessary travel in British Columbia.
ALBERTA’S FRONTLINE WORKERS: Employees such as physicians and nurse aides must quarantine for 14 days after potential exposure to the infectious virus. But Alberta Health Services' COVID-19 advisory group, in a study released Nov. 4, said it is safe – in low-risk circumstances – for exposed health care workers to return to work after just 10 days of quarantine. Meanwhile, Alberta last Friday loosened isolation rules for health care professionals who test positive for COVID-19. Alberta’s hospitals are grappling with staff shortages, which are affecting the level of care available in the province. Some hospitals have had to close beds, for example. Hundreds of elective surgeries are being postponed.
SCHOOLS IN B.C.: Education Minister Rob Fleming said Monday the province’s restart strategy that returned most students to the classroom in September is a “living plan” and if the current restrictions imposed to curb community transmission are unsuccessful, classroom instruction may be curtailed once again. “We’re obviously looking at other provinces that are considering an extension of the holidays, following on Christmas and New Year’s activities," he told reporters. The Education Minister said a shift in school mask policies, as well as additional remote learning opportunities, are also being discussed.
SEATBELTS INACTION: Michelle Straschnitzki, her husband Tom, and a number of other Humboldt Broncos parents are angry at what they see as inaction from the federal and provincial governments on measures that could prevent another tragedy. The federal government is requiring all medium and large highway buses now being built to have seatbelts, but doesn’t make their use mandatory. Seatbelts on school buses are not required. “It’s just disgusting that nothing has changed. It should be legislated as of yesterday. It should be across the board, across Canada. It makes me nuts,” Ms. Straschnitzki said. “This is not okay. We should not be fighting for this 2 1/2 years after the bus crash. It’s not right.”
STRUGGLING RESTAURANTS: After a week of confusion in British Columbia over the new restrictions on social gatherings, contradictory messaging and a groundswell of cancellations, restaurant owners with empty dining rooms are frustrated and wondering if it’s even worth trying to carry on business as usual. B.C. Chief Medical Officer Bonnie Henry has repeatedly stated that indoor dining at restaurants is safe when COVID-19 safety protocols are being followed. But the communication has been far from clear. “Yes, you can go to a restaurant, and I encourage people to continue to go to our restaurants that have their appropriate safety plans in place, but right now we need to make sure that we’re doing it with our group of people,” she said last week. Still, confusion reigned over exactly what “our group of people” meant. In chat groups across the city, restaurateurs are worried that the lack of clarity around the order is a form of “gradualism” leading to eventual closings.
John Gorman on nuclear power’s role in hitting climate targets: “Nuclear power is a clean energy. It does not emit carbon or pollutants that harm human health and the environment, and it’s the only energy source that delivers carbon-free, reliable heat and electricity around the clock. As a result, new nuclear – specifically, small modular reactors (SMRs) – are uniquely positioned to decarbonize our extraction industries, provide heat and power to First Nations communities, and work in tandem with innovations in renewables. Of course, there will be critics.”