“The Provincial announcement is welcome, as any investment in more staff and support to help with case and contact management is important to prevent COVID-19″ HKPR District Health Unit

Article by Sue Dickens

Contact tracing, notification, and follow up is a process that is used to identify, educate and support individuals who have had close contact with someone who has tested positive for an infection.

Last Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, the provincial government announced it has hired more case managers and contact tracers, building the provincial workforce to 1,600 by February 15, 2021.

The issue of contact tracing is something that readers of Trent Hills Now have asked about and so we asked the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge (HKPR) District Health Unit what this latest announcement would mean for their efforts locally.

In the HKPR statement provided to us it was noted that, “The Provincial announcement is welcome, as any investment in more staff and support to help with case and contact management is important to prevent COVID-19. Case and contact management is one of the most fundamental tools used by public health to trace and track diseases, be it COVID-19, tuberculosis or sexually transmitted infections. Tracing efforts are essential to investigate where an individual may have acquired an illness and preventing further spread.”

The HKPR added, “In terms of COVID-19 case and contact management, public health staff will follow up with people who have tested positive for COVID-19. We will ask them to remember anyone with whom they may have been in contact. We also discuss their symptoms, how to isolate, and any supports they may need to follow the rules. We also do regular follow-ups to ensure they are doing OK and following public health direction.”

That is how contact tracing works.

The HKPR further explained the process. “Another part of case/contact management is following up with others who were in close contact with the person who has COVID-19. They could be partners, children or others who live in the same home; friends or neighbours; or co-workers. By tracing these contacts, we can discuss with them any exposure or symptoms they may have, and which precautions they need to take (like isolating) to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

When asked if the government announcement will mean more people to assist with the HKPR the reply was, “It’s still early to say what this latest provincial announcement will mean for the HKPR District Heath Unit. Case and contact management has certainly been beefed up since the start of the pandemic.” 

The health unit added, “Currently, there is also an arrangement between different Ontario health units to support each other with case and contact tracing, when and where possible. Staff with Public Health Ontario has also been deployed to help different health units that need additional help due to rising COVID-19 caseloads. With the significant increase in local COVID-19 cases over the past month or two, Public Health Ontario has been helping HKPR staff to do initial case and contact management calls in this area.”

When asked what the impact will be eventually of the government’s announcement, HKPR stated, “As local COVID-19 cases increase, Health Unit staff are stretched further to ensure proper case and contact management is done with any positive COVID-19 cases and their close contacts. Investing further in this area will only be a positive thing to help control the spread of COVID-19 until we can get vaccines into arms with the rollout of widespread COVID-19 vaccination campaign.”

The announcement by the government also pointed out that along with staff that work in or have been redeployed within public health units, the additional support brings the total number of case and contact tracers in the province to nearly 5,600 staff.

“Our government continues to use every resource at its disposal to fight COVID-19 and keep Ontarians safe,” said Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Christine Elliott. “By expanding our case and contact management capacity, we are significantly boosting our ability to respond to the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the province. We are immensely grateful to our public health units and this provincial workforce, who are all working to keep Ontarians safe and healthy and stop the spread of this deadly virus.”

As well as part of its Fall Preparedness Plan, the province has hired more than 700 contact tracers and case managers, in addition to the 600 Statistics Canada employees that are assisting with contact follow-up. The province is onboarding an additional 300 case managers in the coming weeks – bringing the provincial workforce to 1,600 and the total number of case and contact management staff across Ontario to approximately 5,600.

“Ontario’s public health system continues to take extraordinary efforts to contain COVID-19,” said Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams. “Public health units have shown incredible commitment and dedication to protecting our health during this challenging time. We will continue to work closely with them and support the important services they provide to Ontarians.”

Public health units are starting to use technology to reach cases and contacts faster so that people can get into isolation as quickly as possible and limit the spread, including a new, secure “Virtual Assistant” tool.

Through a secure online form, the Virtual Assistant uses text messages to connect health care workers with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been identified as close contacts. The text messages link to safe and secure web-based forms with questions that help case managers assess symptoms and general health, and identify close contacts. The Virtual Assistant also provides important information to individuals such as guidance on how to self-isolate.

This Virtual Assistant tool is available to all public health units and provincial workforce staff that are supporting public health units. Currently, this new tool is being adopted by a number of public health units including Toronto, Windsor, Halton, Waterloo and York, and will soon be used across the province.

To aid the success of the province’s case managers, contact tracers and health care workers, it is vital that all Ontarians continue to play their part by following public health measures. It is also critically important that individuals with confirmed cases of COVID-19 provide all history of contacts and contact information to their public health unit. This remains the best way to control the spread of the virus and to keep our communities safe from COVID-19.