Toronto Public Health suspends some contact tracing due to 'high level' of coronavirus cases

WATCH: Toronto Public Health has suspended some of its contact tracing as it deals with a major backlog of cases. Medical officials are questioning the move as many experts agree the process is a key component to combatting the spread of the novel coronavirus. Morganne Campbell has more in this report.

Toronto Public Health (TPH) has suspended contact tracing for some coronavirus cases as the city struggles with a “high level” of infections.

Contact tracing, which is when public health units reach out to close contacts of a confirmed case to warn them of potential exposure and in turn take appropriate action, is viewed by experts as a key to combatting virus spread.

“As part of the usual course of outbreak management, when cases reach a high level, public health must make a strategic shift and temporarily re-prioritize case and contact management to focus on the highest-risk scenarios,” TPH spokesperson Lenore Bromley said in a statement Saturday.

“We are focusing on people whose infection poses the most risk to others.”

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Under the new policy for situations not deemed “highest risk”, the team at TPH will still contact those who test positive for coronavirus, assess the person’s ability to self-isolate, assess signs and symptoms and determine symptom onset.

However, most notably, TPH will now “provide instructions to the person” to notify their close contacts.

“We will … continue to investigate and respond to outbreaks in hospital, long-term care, retirement home, shelter, school and child care settings and there are no changes to the policies and procedures for these settings,” Bromley noted.

“This is a temporary measure in response to very high case counts.”

Bromley added: “This is a standard approach in public health and pandemic management.”

TPH has almost 700 people dedicated to case and contact management.

On Friday, Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s medical officer of health, called on the province to implement new restrictions in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19.

De Villa called for indoor dining and indoor gym classes to be temporarily prohibited, among other measures.

“With rapid adoption of these public health measures, this will allow us to return as quickly as possible to our case and contact management process,” Bromley said.

“When cases go down, we will return to the previous approach.”

On Friday, de Villa mentioned that the city was taking a new approach to case and contact management to focus on high-risk scenarios, but the exact meaning of that shift was not publicly clear until a Globe and Mail report on Saturday.

More contact tracers being hired

Global News reached out to the provincial government for comment.

“The government continues to work closely with Toronto Public Health and all of our local public health units in the fight against COVID-19,” a Ministry of Health statement said on Sunday.

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The statement said the provincial and federal governments assist 22 of 34 local public health units with contact tracing through redeployed Statistics Canada staff. The assistance is mostly coordinated through Public Health Ontario and a “central pool” of contact tracers, the ministry said.

“Contact tracing support for public health units is being supplemented by the additional hiring of a minimum of 600 staff (case managers and contact tracers) in the next five weeks, starting next week,” the ministry said.

“The province is also supporting Toronto and Ottawa Public Health with additional support through direct assignment of Statistics Canada, OPS and private sector staffing. This includes 200 staff coming on in the next four weeks to Toronto Public Health, starting with onboarding Monday, Oct. 5.

“These staff will immediately help TPH reach out to cases, and also provide contact tracing support in the coming weeks.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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