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Alberta resumes COVID-19 contact tracing in schools, offers rapid testing

Public reporting of schools with at least two COVID-19 cases or outbreaks started Wednesday. Contact tracing is to resume next Tuesday when students return to classes after the Thanksgiving long weekend. 
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Sarah Hoffman, Alberta Minister of Health, responds to a reporter's questions at a press conference during the Conferences of Provincial-Territorial Ministers of Health in Winnipeg on June 28, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

The Alberta government has announced new COVID-19 measures and reinstated some old ones to reduce pressure on the province's health-care system, including resuming contact tracing in schools.

Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday that COVID-19 remains a serious threat in the province and cases are growing in children between five and 11 years old.

Public reporting of schools with at least two COVID-19 cases or outbreaks started Wednesday. Contact tracing is to resume next Tuesday when students return to classes after the Thanksgiving long weekend. 

"We'll be supporting school authorities as they determine close contacts of individuals who were infectious while attending school, and they will notify families of those close contacts to help schools through this interim step," said Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.

"Contact notification will not extend to positive cases, community activities, or out-of-school contacts."

Kenney said testing will be increased. The province is asking for six million rapid-testing kits to send home for parents with unvaccinated children.

The province said about 65 per cent of people aged 12 to 19 are vaccinated.

“We’ll start with schools that are experiencing outbreaks and are in unvaccinated areas and we’ll build from there," he said, adding that school divisions will also be encouraged to adopt mandatory vaccination policies for staff.

The province, which had been reporting more than 1,000 daily COVID-19 cases for weeks, announced 663 new cases Tuesday and 26 additional deaths. There were 1,094 patients in hospital with the infection, including 252 in intensive care.

Kenney also announced a new restriction on outdoor gatherings, which has dropped to 20 people from 200. Indoor gatherings are still not permitted for those who are not vaccinated.

"We're making progress in our fourth-wave fight, but we risk losing all of that progress and putting even more pressure on our overstressed hospitals if Albertans do not respect these critical public-health rules over the days to come," Kenney said.

In addition, the government said Albertans who are age 75 and older and First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people who are 65 and older can get a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at least six months after their second dose.

The announcements follow mounting pressure from parents, teachers, and the Opposition NDP to reinstate contact tracing in schools.

An advocacy group called Support Our Students said at least 10 per cent of elementary and secondary schools have active outbreaks.

The group has been tracking infections in schools since September. That's when the province ended contact tracing and lifted a requirement for students to isolate after close contact with a positive case.

Earlier Tuesday, Edmonton Public Schools passed a motion to request that the Alberta government close all schools for two weeks as part of a "firebreak" lockdown.

"It's a plea for help, ultimately," said board chairwoman Trisha Estabrooks.

"No one wants to be in this situation. I would argue if the measures of notification, of contact tracing and quarantining close contacts [were put in place], I highly doubt we would be in this situation. It didn't have to be this way."

Amanda McNaughton, a Calgary mother of two teens, said her husband has Stage 4 colon cancer and she lives in a constant state of worry as her children attend school. 

"I want to see that the data is being gathered and ... decisions [made] to ensure that nothing is brought home that is going to kill my husband."

LaGrange did not answer questions from reporters on why it took the government so long to reinstate contact tracing.

"We've been working very closely with Dr. Deena Hinshaw and team, with Alberta Health, AHS, to ensure that the health measures that we put in place are actually doing what they need to do," she said.

Earlier in the day, the NDP urged the premier to use the military to do contact tracing in schools. Eight critical care nurses with the Canadian Armed Forces are to help Alberta hospitals that have been overwhelmed with COVID-19.

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said many military members who don't have clinical backgrounds could be trained to contact trace.

The province said schools will initially support the contact tracing process, with Alberta Health Services taking over in the next several weeks. Hoffman said the plan is not good enough.

"Once again, they are dumping the work onto teachers and principals for another month-and-a-half. They have no details about who will be isolated and when, especially in high schools," she said.

"It is absurd that this contact tracing will not extend beyond the school community, as if the virus stops at the edge of school property."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Fakiha Baig and Alanna Smith, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said 65 per cent of people aged 12 to 19 are unvaccinated.