Corbella: Alberta's disease detectives save countless lives
Officially they’re called contact tracers — but in short they are nothing less than sickness sleuths, pandemic police or, more recently, COVID cops.
Alberta’s disease detectives — all of them either nurses, doctors or medical students who are volunteering their time during this pandemic — have contacted each and every one of the 2,908 Albertans who have, to date, tested positive for COVID-19. Once an infected person is contacted, these medical gumshoes do some scientific scouting that helps stop the spread of a communicable disease as soon as possible.
Dr. David Strong says contact tracing is nothing new. It goes on all the time to prevent the spread of all sorts of diseases like measles, tuberculosis, Hepatitis A, HIV/AIDS and many other communicable illnesses.
Under normal circumstances Alberta has 75 full-time disease detectives. Those numbers have ballooned by almost 500 per cent to 440 people to help wrestle this mysterious super villain — COVID-19 — into submission.
Strong, the medical health officer for the province’s communicable disease program for Alberta Health Services, says 6,600 contact tracing investigations have been performed and continue every day, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week.
He and his team have commandeered all sorts of space in both Calgary and Edmonton in AHS buildings emptied out because of social distancing parameters, to track down people who test positive for the novel coronavirus and then all of their contacts.
As soon as a positive test result is determined in the provincial lab, it’s emailed to the contact tracing office.
A team member then calls the person who tested positive and first tries to establish how sick they are and whether they need any additional medical care. Then, they attempt to determine where they might have been exposed, as well as who was exposed to them while they were infectious. With that information, they then reach out to the named contacts.
If they are health care workers or work in and around vulnerable people — like in a long-term care facility, where so many of the coronavirus deaths have occurred in Alberta and all across Canada — they are tested whether they are symptomatic or not.
“We try to establish if the contacts are sick and if they are sick, we get them tested and if that comes back positive we reinitiate that process of connecting with all of their contacts,” explains Strong.
Dr. Richelle Schindler, 34, who will be graduating with a specialty in public health this summer, has been working in Calgary’s contact tracing office since March 5 — when Alberta’s first COVID-19 case was discovered.
“I have definitely used everything I have been trained in,” said Schindler, who has an undergraduate degree in biological sciences, a Masters degree in physiology, a medical degree from the University of Calgary in July 2015 and a five-year medical residency in public health, which she will finish in August.
Initially Schindler says she had planned to be a cardiologist but realized she was more excited and passionate about preventing illness than treating it.
“All the complex medicine and all the public health training, it’s all accumulated into this ability to rapidly assess the literature and emerging evidence, identify what’s important, translate it into action and you know, save the province,” she says with a laugh.
“We’re definitely disease detectives in this work, where we’re trying to identify not only who the case has infected but where they might have gotten it, (and) link all these things together, to get the bigger picture of what’s happening,” she said.
On Monday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, announced that one of the four Albertans who had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours was a worker at the Cargill meat-packing plant, located about 55 kilometres south of Calgary. Hinshaw pointed out that 484 total positive cases of COVID-19 are linked to the Cargill plant outbreak — 360 of whom are workers from the plant.
That information all stems from the contact tracers.
Besides contact tracing, it’s public health doctors who oversee restaurant inspections, ensure our water supply remains safe and clean, conduct vaccination programs, hold prenatal classes and visit new parents following a birth.
“We’re the reason why you don’t see a massive outbreak in HIV, for example, because we’re identifying through contact tracing folks who have had an HIV diagnosis. Controlling tuberculosis, which was a huge issue a couple of decades ago is now a non-issue in Alberta because of this contact tracing work,” said Schindler.
Strong notes that contact tracing saves lives — no question.
“That’s the funny thing about prevention — you never know what you prevented but we do know that contact tracing is a very effective intervention, that it stops transmission for all kinds of diseases and saves countless lives,” said Strong.
He believes that contact tracing will be even more important in the months to come.
“Once the initial wave is over, this contact tracing is going to be probably more important going down the road particularly when travel starts opening up again. We’re going to be having to make sure we do case finding, make sure we test people who are coming back from places where there’s still COVID, for example, and then when we find a case, contact tracing is going to be increasingly important to prevent a second wave from actually happening,” Strong explained.
Thanks to Alberta’s super brainy disease detectives you might never know that you dodged disease and death because of their interventions, but you should know about the important role they play in keeping you healthy.
Licia Corbella is a Postmedia columnist in Calgary. firstname.lastname@example.org