Sask. Health authorities recruit volunteers and retirees for COVID-19 contact tracing

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The Saskatchewan Health Authority is recruiting retirees and volunteers to help with contact tracing investigations, according to a spokesperson for health authorities.SHA has more than 350 staff trained in contact tracing, the spokesperson said. But as cases of COVID-19 and the number of close contacts increase, investigations are taking longer to complete.

Thus, the health authority is recruiting more contact tracers, including retirees and volunteers, in anticipation of a possible increase in cases.

“Our contact tracing system is certainly under strain,” Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone said at a press conference Thursday.

“A single positive case each day provides contact tracers with hours of work over the two-week period” after a positive result, he said. “But that job can grow exponentially when you factor in the number of contacts. ”

Saskatchewan averaged 214 new cases of COVID-19 per day as of Thursday over a two-week period. Each case had about seven or eight close contacts on average, creating 32,000 total hours of work over the two-week period, Livingstone said.

He noted that the average number of contacts is down slightly from recent weeks, but that the health authority is planning an effective contact tracing strategy in case the province approaches 450 cases per day.

At the start of the pandemic, the provincial government allowed retired nurses to obtain emergency licenses through the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses Association, the province’s regulatory body for nurses. The most recent license was issued Thursday.

The association works with the health authority on the workforce side and shares its list of emergency practice licenses each week with the SHA “and other employers,” a spokesperson for association.

The purpose of contact tracing is to identify cases of COVID-19 before they can unknowingly spread the disease throughout the community. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters)

Once nurses retire, they are no longer part of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses. But if they receive an emergency license, they are temporarily unionized, SUN President Tracy Zambory said.

“It is simply extremely important that the resources are [contact tracing] that it requires, ”she said.

“It’s about resuming health care services, and stepping back into some of the slower areas so human resources can be freed up to help with contact tracing.

‘Real consequences’

Contact tracing aims to identify cases of COVID-19 before they can unknowingly spread the disease throughout the community, says Dr Cory Neudorf, public health doctor and professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan.

Finding close contacts means they can self-isolate and get tested sooner.

“You interrupt this chain of transmission and you can start to bring the pandemic under control,” he said.

News by health officials that contact tracing investigations are taking longer means Saskatchewan residents are not following public health rules as closely as they should be, or people living with HIV to COVID visit public spaces, says Neudorf.

Tedious investigations can also make contact tracing more difficult and curb the spread of COVID-19, as people can forget who they have met and where they have been over time, he said.

But the pressure on contact tracing also has consequences for the entire healthcare system, Livingstone said Thursday.

A limited number of workers are trained in contact tracing, so some health workers have been relocated within the health system to conduct surveys. But that’s just a band-aid solution, says Neudorf.

A Saskatchewan public health doctor recommends keeping a list of the places you go and the people you visit to help contact tracers if you receive a positive COVID-19 test. (Robert Short / CBC)

“As the epidemic progresses and you start to have a lot of COVID-19 cases in the hospital, these workers need to be brought back to care for the COVID-positive patients,” he said. “You can’t use the same things for both purposes, so it’s only a short-term solution. ”

The redeployment of staff is also causing disruption in other health services, he added.

Saskatchewan residents can help reduce the length of contact tracing investigations by only going out in public for essential reasons, regardless of what the province’s public health rules allow, to reduce the number of close contacts , Neudorf said.

When people go out, they should pay attention to physical distance and wear a mask, he added.

Neudorf also suggests keeping a weekly list of where you go, who you see and when, especially if you often have to be in public. These lists help tracers easily locate contacts, if a person tests positive.

As of Friday, 2,237 cases of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan are under investigation by public health officials.

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