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Quick contact tracing to limit COVID infections remains challenging, says doc

'We have to do all that we can to keep up immunization because that ultimately is the way out of this situation,' says Gardner
2021-03-23 Gardner
Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health in Simcoe-Muskoka, speaks to members of the media on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit continues to be challenged in its efforts to reach out in a timely way — to all those who have been in contact with people infected with COVID-19.

And although local contact tracers do reach everyone who has tested positive, they’ve only been able to reach about 70 per cent of those cases within 24 hours, while the target is 90 per cent, Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health with the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, said during a weekly media call on Tuesday.

Staff are being stretched to now work on the mass vaccination program, he added.

“For a long time, we had the assistance of another health unit for case and contact management because of the high case count that we had,” Gardner said. “Hastings Prince Edward has since discontinued that support because they are busy themselves with their own cases.

“We are continuing to get support from the province for the follow-up with the contacts of our cases, but we’re finding ourselves more and more challenged over time," he added. 

As a result, the questions have been simplified, Gardner said.

While reaching 100 per cent of the cases is ideal, 70 per cent is still good progress particularly when people comply and remove themselves from the transmission chain by quarantining, said York University research professor Jianhong Wu, who is Canada Research Chair in Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

Wu's modelling has shown that robust contact tracing, with frequent testing, could well keep COVID at bay and eventually allow for reduced restrictions.

He said it is still possible to prevent against a third wave, but that requires extra effort by everyone, particularly with the variants of concern dominating cases both locally and provincially.

“With the new situation that the variants of concern are more transmissible, we have to now double the effort” by enhancing contact tracing, quarantining and self-isolation, he said.

In Simcoe-Muskoka, contact tracers are able to catch up somewhat when the number of cases drop, but find themselves challenged when the number of cases climb. At that point, those who have tested positive could be asked to follow up with their contacts themselves, Gardner said.

Contact tracing has been considered an important measure throughout the pandemic, and is particularly with the emergence of variants of the virus, which now account for 78 per cent of all local COVID-19 cases in Simcoe-Muskoka.

“Isolation of cases and follow-up with their contacts and having them in isolation is important and effective and also increasingly challenging for us to do with our limited resources as the case count goes up and as we also surge forward with immunization," Gardner said. "We have to do all that we can to keep up immunization because that ultimately is the way out of this situation.

“We’ve done an unprecedented amount of hiring of staff, most of them have gone to immunization, but some of them have gone to case and contact management," he added.

Just under 200 people have been added to the health unit’s staff to help with pandemic efforts.

Meanwhile, the pandemic efforts and extra help on the contact-tracing front and now with vaccinations has contributed to the health unit exceeding its original budget and the creation of an “augmented budget.”

Gardner said close to an additional $5 million was approved to be able to carry out the immunization campaign.