Toronto scales back contact tracing as COVID-19 cases surge

Toronto Public Health is shifting its contact tracing strategy to focus on outbreaks in high-risk settings


Toronto Public Health is unable to keep up with COVID-19 contact tracing and will temporarily stop calling close contacts of positive cases outside high-risk settings such as hospitals and schools.

As new infections rise dramatically in the city, TPH confirmed in a social media post on Saturday that the city “must make a strategic shift” and “temporarily prioritize case & contact management to focus on greatest risk scenarios.

“This is why we asked the province to undertake additional public health measures to drive down our case counts,” the statement reads.

Contact tracing is when public health officials reach out to close contacts of someone who tests positive and warns them of potential exposure to the virus. They then advise people on steps to take.

According an internal TPH email obtained by the Globe and Mail, effective Friday the city’s contact tracers stopped calling close contacts of some people who test positive and also ceased collecting data on where people were exposed to COVID-19.

Instead, the city’s team of more than 700 contact tracers will call positive cases and instruct those people to notify their close contacts that they need to self-isolate.

However, contact tracers will continue to track and respond to virus outbreaks in hospitals, long-term care homes, retirement homes, shelters, schools and child-care centres.

The email states the city is grappling with a backlog of “approximately 800 cases.”

City calls for stricter provincial measures

On Friday, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa wrote a letter to provincial public health officials asking for a four-week shut down of indoor dining and gym classes, among other measures.

During a press briefing with Mayor John Tory, de Villa said TPH would “temporarily reprioritize case and contact management” but did not specifically state reaching out to close contacts of some positive cases would temporarily cease.

“As part of the usual course of outbreak management, when cases reach a high level, public health must make a strategic shift and temporarily reprioritize case and contact management to focus on the highest risk scenarios,” she said.

“We’re implementing this prioritization now. This is a temporary measure in response to very high case counts,” she continued. “The reason I am asking the province to undertake additional public health measures is to drive overall case counts down. When this happens, we will return to the previous case and contact management strategies.”

Toronto Board of Health chair Joe Cressy tweeted on Saturday that “immediate provincial measures” are required to prevent COVID-19 patients from “overwhelming our hospitals and the entire public health system.”

As of October 3, the city’s COVID-19 monitoring dashboard listed the public health system capacity as “yellow,” health system capacity as “green” and lab testing and and virus spread and containment as “red.”

At midnight, Doug Ford’s government implemented a new province-wide indoor mask policy, as well as targeted measures aimed at restaurants and bars in COVID-19 hot spots Ottawa and Peel. (Toronto tightened restrictions on food and drink establishments earlier in the week.)

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Williams and Health Minister Christine Elliott said on Friday they had received de Villa’s letter and would consider her recommendations.

However, some restaurants and other venues in the city – including the Toronto Zoo – have voluntarily closed indoor spaces to the public.

On October 3, the province reported 653 new COVID-19 infections, including 284 in Toronto.

A day earlier, the province hit a record high of 732 new infections in a 24-hour period.

There are now 5,380 active cases of the virus in the province.

@nowtoronto

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