A call to action: COVID-19 contact tracers
If you’re anything like me, part of your daily routine likely includes waiting for the latest figures of confirmed COVID-19 cases in your city and wondering:
- Have they gone up?
- Have they gone down?
- Where am I going to order pizza from this week?
All very important questions.
Every day, we’re presented with a ton of information and data on COVID-19 from federal, provincial, and municipal public health authorities. Case numbers, new insights into the virus, vaccine progress updates — it can all get a bit overwhelming. But there’s always been one aspect of the public health response to the pandemic that’s fascinated me since the very beginning: contact tracing. It’s always been such an interesting concept to me, and just thinking about the amount of work and coordination involved made my head hurt.
I knew that it was mainly handled at the provincial level, but I heard rumblings about a Government of Canada (GC) connection with Ontario. So I set out to learn more.
On the trace
“It consists of calling an individual who has been in close contact with someone that has tested positive for COVID-19”
So, what exactly is contact tracing? Liz Christie, a policy analyst at Health Canada (HC) explained that: “It consists of calling an individual who has been in close contact with someone that has tested positive for COVID-19 and providing them with guidance and next steps. It also means following-up with those individuals to ensure they’re self-isolating if they’re experiencing any symptoms.”
In other words, there are people whose job it is to follow-up with every known contact of a confirmed case. It sounds like pretty demanding work, but also has the makings of one of the most epic episodes of True Detective.
“We were essentially building the ship while we were sailing”
Along with her colleague, Patrick Byrne, Liz was part of a special Secretariat that was formed at the onset of the pandemic to help Public Health Ontario (PHO), an arm’s length Crown agency of the Government of Ontario, with its role in contact tracing across the province. Patrick and Liz established a process and helped recruit and organize volunteers from HC and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) to serve as surge capacity contact tracers to help their PHO colleagues. Because everything had to come together so quickly, it was pretty challenging at first: “We were essentially building the ship while we were sailing”, explained Patrick.
Within two weeks, the HC/PHAC Secretariat managed to recruit 250 volunteers from across the country! But even more impressive than the volume was who signed up to help: “We had volunteers from nearly every level and position across the two departments. From entry-level administrative all the way up to Director General- and everything in between”, explained Liz. I’m not ashamed to say that particular revelation gave me all the feels; the idea of GC employees coming together, regardless of position, just because they wanted to help? Very inspiring.
Lending a helping hand
“It was a chance to change my usual job for something different and be part of the solution, so I put my name down.”
Elizabeth Corrigan, a senior policy analyst also at Health Canada, received an email from her Director General asking if anyone would be interested in helping with the project: “It was a chance to change my usual job for something different and be part of the solution, so I put my name down.”
Since she had some experience in this field during her time at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and as a Team Lead, Elizabeth was contacted by Patrick or Liz on a daily basis to oversee her individual team and perform the day’s calls.
She would look at her call sheets every morning and assign a certain amount of contacts to each caller, noting things like the preferred language of each individual. At the end of the day, she would upload the information to a secure database which was checked by Patrick or Liz, and then sent back to PHO.
The calls themselves were separated into two categories:
- First contacts: the first time a contact tracer calls someone that may have been exposed (these calls tended to take a bit more time)
- Follow-up calls: calls made for up to 14 days after the initial call, to see how the exposed individuals were doing and making sure they were self-isolating
As you’d expect, it wasn’t always easy. But Eugene Mamichev, an analytical researcher at Health Canada and Team Lead, explained that contact tracers are a persistent bunch: “We would call an individual up to three times a day to ensure we’d reach them.” Eugene was in a unique position to help as he has a background in epidemiology; he even worked on the Ebola virus back in 2015. He explained how contact tracers face some challenges in their line of work: “You sometimes have to deal with very stressful calls. It can cause quite a bit of anxiety to the person you’re talking to when you explain to them that they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. And every call is different. Some are as quick as five minutes. Others can go up to 45.”
But he noted that the vast majority of people were respectful and understanding: “The main thing is to use your judgement and show empathy. Sometimes you need to go off script to reassure those individuals who are more stressed, but your job is to make sure the person on the other line understands the situation and what they need to do.”
The provincial connection
“Contact tracing is all about awareness. Our job is to try and stop the spread of COVID-19.”
Rena Chung, Director of Environmental and Occupational Health at Public Health Ontario helped lead the contact tracing initiative at PHO and helped sort out the logistics with her counterparts at HC and PHAC.
For context, it’s Ontario’s 34 public health units that are in charge of investigating and contact tracing COVID-19 cases in each region, whereas PHO typically provides the various health sectors and units with the scientific and tech knowhow. But because of the volume of cases in Ontario, PHO was brought in to also help with tracing, which speaks to sheer level of collaboration between each level of government.
To Rena, it’s pretty simple: “Contact tracing is all about awareness. Our job is to try and stop the spread of COVID-19.”
Her team of contact tracers follows-up with confirmed contacts and provides them with important information and next steps. She’s rightly proud of her team - and the collaboration with the GC: “Our staff has put in extra hours and works seven days a week. I have been overwhelmed by how well everyone is working together and breaking down barriers.”
Multiple governments, one team
“I’m very proud of the work we did. I like to think we helped a lot of people.”
The few individuals that I had the opportunity to speak with were utterly inspiring, but they are only a small fraction of the contact tracers doing amazing work across the country. Statistics Canada has now taken over for HC and PHAC in helping PHO on contact tracing, and to know that so many are dedicated to such a difficult job to help minimize the spread of COVID-19 speaks volumes about their character.
Liz Christie summed it up perfectly: “I’m very proud of the work we did. I like to think we helped a lot of people.”
That’s the essence of public service to me. The pandemic has shone a light on many unsung heroes in our country; our contact tracers deserve to be in that spotlight too.
Along with following the public health guidelines in your area, you can also do your part by downloading the COVID Alert app on iOS and Android. It’s an important tool in the battle against COVID-19 and works alongside contact tracing to help stop the spread.
And if I’m honest, I don’t pay as much attention to the numbers anymore because I’m more reassured that Canada’s contact tracers are on the case.
But I still have no idea what kind of pizza I’m ordering.
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