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Manitoba’s ability to connect quickly with people who test positive for COVID-19 – and promptly track down their close contacts – appears to be fading.

With caseloads now surging in the province and the number of close contacts per infected person growing rapidly, it’s questionable how long public health officials will be able to maintain full-scale contact tracing.

Province provides conflicting info on COVID app

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MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS						</p>																	<p>Winnipeggers have reported delays of nearly a week between receiving a positive test result and a followup call from contact tracers. The app stores Bluetooth-based location data between phones for a maximum of 14 days.						</p>
MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeggers have reported delays of nearly a week between receiving a positive test result and a followup call from contact tracers. The app stores Bluetooth-based location data between phones for a maximum of 14 days.

Posted: 23/10/2020 2:07 PM

NOT even the province is clear on the process of doling out COVID-positive codes for the national alert app, despite encouraging Manitobans to use it earlier this month.

Email exchanges with a provincial representative revealed confusion surrounding how Manitobans can properly use the COVID Alert app if they test positive for the virus.

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Getting ahold of those infected with the disease and finding people they’ve been in close contact with is seen as an effective way of containing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Close contacts are expected to self-isolate for 14 days even if they’re not showing symptoms. But experts say it only works if people are contacted within a day or two of a positive test. The longer they wait, the less likelihood of breaking the chain of transmission.

The goal in Manitoba has been to contact 90 per cent of people who test positive (and their close contacts) within 24 hours. But as caseloads have soared, the province has fallen behind. Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer, said this week the province hit a bottleneck. There have been reports of some people waiting close to a week before getting a call from a contact tracer.

To make matters worse, the number of people per case who may have been exposed to the virus is also on the rise. The median number of close contacts per infected person doubled to four in August and September from two in June and July, according to data obtained from the province. One case in September had 62 close contacts. The median number was as high as four in May, but there were far fewer cases then. There is no available data yet for October.

It’s obvious provincial officials failed to ensure they had adequate contact tracing resources for an expected second wave of the pandemic, even though they had the entire summer to prepare. It’s no surprise they’re now falling behind, given the recent surge.

There were 1,942 new COVID-19 cases announced in October — a daily average of 84. If the median number of close contacts is still four (it could be higher for October), public health would have to make initial contact with over 400 people a day.

If the experience in Ontario and Quebec is any indication, Manitoba may soon have to consider altering its contact tracing strategy to focus on the highest priority areas, such as outbreaks in schools and seniors homes.

That number is growing. Over the past five days, there has been a daily average of 127 new cases, which would require public health officials to contact over 600 people per day.

But that’s not all. Public health says it also attempts to follow up with infected people and their close contacts on a daily basis to ensure they’re self-isolating. The province reported an active caseload of 1,855 Friday, with thousands more close contacts. It’s doubtful the province has the resources to contact that many people every day.

If the experience in Ontario and Quebec is any indication, Manitoba may soon have to consider altering its contact tracing strategy to focus on the highest priority areas, such as outbreaks in schools and seniors homes. Public health officials in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa could no longer keep up with the thousands of new cases of COVID-19 a week and had to abandon full-scale contact tracing earlier this month. In some cases, people who tested positive were told they had to track down their own close contacts by calling friends and family with whom they interacted.

Eventually Manitoba will have to come to terms with the fact it has to focus more of its resources on protecting those most vulnerable to the disease.

Eventually Manitoba will have to come to terms with the fact it has to focus more of its resources on protecting those most vulnerable to the disease; namely the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. The data show those are the groups most susceptible to severe outcomes. The strategy of protecting them solely by trying to keep overall case numbers down is failing — especially now that the province appears to have lost control of managing the virus.

"We have a relatively small, yet predictable amount of people that will experience severe outcomes," Roussin said Thursday.

If it’s a small and predictable group, why aren’t we doing a better job of shielding them from the virus, not only in personal care homes but also in the broader community?

As infection rates climb and hospital admissions grow, the province will have no choice but to refocus its efforts on high priority areas, both for contact tracing and infection mitigation. The alternative — another full-scale lockdown, the collateral damage of which would far outweigh the benefits — is unthinkable.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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