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Thousands of COVID-19 cases investigated, contacts being tracked down

Health unit needs to get 'back on track' with its regular services while still being dedicated to COVID-19 tracking, top doc says
Screen Shot 2020-04-24 at 2.41.33 PM
Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit presents an update to the media on April 24. Screenshot

More than 100 staff at the region’s health unit are part of a disease investigation team charged with tracking COVID-19’s path through Simcoe County and Muskoka.

Though there have been 237 lab-confirmed cases in the region, there are thousands more people who have been dubbed “potential cases” requiring the investigation by the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit.

“At this time we are investigating 1,700 contacts and potential cases,” said Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the region. “We have completed 4,300 investigations. For every case, there’s a much larger amount of people we have to follow up with and investigate.”

In every confirmed positive case, the health unit is required to call the individual to report the result and also to gather information on who their close contacts are, where they work, and when they started experiencing symptoms.

But the lab-confirmed cases, as Gardner has been known to say, are only the tip of the iceberg.

“We’ve had a 10-fold increase in the number of calls,” said Gardner, adding on some days, the increase was more like 100-fold.

Yesterday, the SMDHU fielded 171 calls from residents in the region.

On March 17, the health unit announced Ontario’s first COVID-19 related death, a man from Barrie. The next day, the health unit fielded 1,200 calls.

“We’ve had to deploy almost all our staff to this cause,” said Gardner. “We’re completely dedicated to this.”

But SMDHU existed long before COVID-19, and those 102 staff now chasing the virus around the region previously had other jobs in other programs such as immunization clinics, dental clinics, food handler training and inspection, parenting classes, prenatal classes, breastfeeding classes, tobacco cessation workshops and enforcement, sexual health clinics, and tracing other viruses and contagious outbreaks.

Those programs are, for the most part, not operating in any capacity.

“The longer this goes on, the more concerned I become,” said Gardner today during a virtual press conference. “In no way could we do this without very negative consequences, for a year and a half … we absolutely need to get back on track in the not-too-distant future.”

He said, for example, a lapse in vaccinations could mean a group of kids who are vulnerable to vaccine-preventable outbreaks such as measles.

Without public health breastfeeding clinics, Gardner said, some mothers may not “initiate breastfeeding to the same degree” and babies would be missing out on those health benefits.

Restaurant and food services inspections are part of a public health effort to prevent food-borne illness.

A lack of enforcement of tobacco control legislation could potentially mean an increase in the sale of tobacco or vaping products to youth.

But COVID-19 isn’t likely going anywhere anytime soon, and a vaccine for the coronavirus - if one is developed - is likely two years away from viability.

“We need to get back to our programming,” said Gardner, adding he also expects the virus to come in waves and require redeployment again if caseloads climb. “We haven’t figured out how to do both.”

Keeping up programs and maintaining a COVID-19 response team might require the health unit to hire more people, according to Gardner.

“We can’t redeploy every time this happens because we will lose our ability to do all those other things,” said Gardner. “We can’t let future waves impede our ability to protect the public from everything else.”

SMDHU is working on what Gardner referred to as a business continuity plan. He said he’d like to see at least some of the health unit’s pre-COVID-19 programming in place within a month.

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Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 13 years of experience as a local journalist
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