Alberta Health Services aimed to have 1,600 workers tracking close contacts of active COVID-19 cases by the end of 2020, but the agency confirms it is still short of that amount.

In an email to CTV News Tuesday, AHS confirmed that it had 1,250 contact tracers employed as of this week, and they’re continuing to meet the demand brought on by the continued pandemic.

“I think everybody is pretty frustrated with the yardsticks always being moved,” said Dr. Raj Bhardwaj who is a Calgary emergency room doctor.

“I mean you set those numbers up for yourself, and when you don’t meet those targets what are the ramifications?”

Vaccinations have injected some hope but Alberta also fell short of the of number shots it hoped to have administered by the end of 2020.

Now, the shortfall of tracers, and fewer Albertans getting tested raises concern, as 59% of the province’s COVID-19 cases come from unknown origins.

“Numbers are down in terms of the testing so the numbers are down in terms of cases, but what we see in the emergency rooms in the hospitals seems to be related to maybe a Christmas rush,” said Dr. Bhardwaj.

AHS officials said that the reason they fell short of the 1,600-position goal set late in 2020 was due to a number of delays.

"With such a large volume of hires in a short period of time, AHS has experienced some delay with expediting the onboard process for staff due to various factors including available orientation spots, computer equipment availability, IT and security clearances etc.," it wrote in the statement.

"AHS is working hard to address these delays and bring additional staff onto the contact tracing team as quickly as possible while maintaining the necessary standards and safety protocols necessary."

Health restrictions

The province has not announced when it will end the latest health restrictions, which are set to last until at least January 12.

The owner of Trolley 5 Brewpub said a lot hinges on one factor.

“We need the contact tracing to get better for our industry, as well as the fitness industry, and hair industry, to re-open,” said Ernie Tsu who is also the president of the Alberta Hospitality Association.

Tsu is confident in the safety measures in place at restaurants but says contact tracing would help prove it and give Albertans confidence to return to in-person dining.

“There’s no emotion in numbers,” he said.

For now he is encouraging his laid-off employees to find new work, as tracers, so their old jobs can resume. 

“We need the contact tracers to get these industries, our industries, and all the unemployed Calgarians back to work,” said Tsu.

According to its data, AHS had 50 contact tracers pre-pandemic. By July, it had 300 and by September, there were 700 on staff.

Officials say they expect to have 1,600 workers on staff in the next few weeks and more than 2,000 by early February.

You can learn more about active contact tracing opportunities on the AHS website.