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Alberta Health Services says most COVID patients must notify close contacts themselves

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Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health during yesterday's daily COVID-19 briefing. Image: Screenshot of YourAlberta video/YouTube

Overwhelmed by a rising tide of new daily COVID-19 cases -- "about 800" were reported yesterday by Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw -- Alberta Health Services has announced it will no longer notify most close contacts of Albertans who test positive for the disease.

Starting today, if you test positive, AHS now wants you to notify your own close contacts yourself.

What could possibly go wrong?

In a news release yesterday, the provincial health authority said only three categories of close contacts would now be notified by provincial health officials: health-care workers, minor children (whose parents will be informed) and people who live or work in communal facilities.

The rest of you are on your own, dependent on your contacts to do the right thing, and that includes vulnerable seniors who live in their own homes.

"AHS will no longer directly notify individual close contacts of positive cases that are confirmed outside of these three priority groups at this time," the news release stated. You can read it yourself here, in case you think I'm making this up.

"Instead, Albertans who are not within these priority groups who have tested positive for COVID-19 will be asked to notify their own close contacts of the exposure," the official AHS statement continued.

But worry not, Albertans, AHS will provide "the case," by which the release's author presumably meant the sick person, "with guidance on notification of their own contacts." And, no doubt, warm good luck wishes as well.

In the classic style of the public relations industry, the AHS news release tried to portray this troubling development in a positive light: While the volume of cases is unprecedented, the statement explained, "the Alberta Health Services contact tracing team is working tirelessly to meet demand."

"However, to help this team -- and the health of our communities -- we are engaging Albertans to support contact tracing efforts," it continues.

In other words, we didn't hire and train enough contract tracers, the provincial contact tracing app doesn't work, and Premier Jason Kenney won't let us use the federal COVID Alert app, so you're all volunteer contract tracers now! And if some of you don't do your new job properly, well, don't look at us!

The Alberta government says the province currently employees about 800 contact tracers.

So former Conservative British prime minister David Cameron's dream of the "big society" -- touted by Danielle Smith back in the day when she was leader of Alberta's Wildrose party -- has come to Alberta at last, and some of the essential jobs of the state will be shuffled off onto volunteers or they won't be done at all.

That said, I doubt even Cameron -- the brainiac behind the Brexit referendum, which he expected to fail -- would have contemplated using such a scheme in the midst of a deadly global pandemic, as the United Conservative Party government is obviously prepared to countenance.

One imagines the members of Alberta's fraternity of professional ambulance-chasing legalists are rubbing their hands with glee at the potential for litigation against infected private citizens who fail to follow Alberta Health Services' guidelines.

This measure will be temporary, AHS reassured, merely a "pilot" -- which since it likely means it will be in place as long as COVID-19 infections are running out of control isn't really all that comforting.

Neither is the fact that the exact number of cases recorded in the 24 hours before yesterday wasn't available because of what Hinshaw called technical problems with the provincial reporting system.

Meanwhile hundreds of federal employees have been temporarily assigned to assist provinces, including Alberta, with contact tracing.

But while 600 are deployed to assist Ontario and 100 are helping Quebec, with many more queuing up to aid other provinces, Alberta seems to have availed itself of the services of only 15.

Ottawa appears to have no problem deploying its employees to help address the national coronavirus crisis, so I don't have an answer tonight for why Alberta hasn't asked for more meaningful numbers.

That said, given the Kenney government's reluctance to allow Albertans to have access the federal COVID-19 tracing app, apparently known in the UCP cabinet and caucus as "the Trudeau tracing app," it's not hard to imagine the motivation.

Meanwhile, sick Albertans will now be responsible on their own for keeping track of, in addition to folks with whom they've exchanged bodily fluids or accidentally sneezed upon, "anyone who was within two metres of a positive case of COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes, even if a mask was worn during that contact."

Good luck with that, folks!

"The identification and notification of close contacts of COVID-19 remains critical to Alberta's fight against COVID-19," the news release states. "Rapid notification of close contacts ensures that those exposed can isolate and get tested before potentially spreading disease to others."

Albertans are entitled to wonder why, if that is so, their provincial government won't even allow them to use the COVID Alert app.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Screenshot of YourAlberta video/YouTube

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