The Ontario government will be providing about 200 additional staff to Toronto Public Health after the health unit said that its scaling back its contact tracing efforts but the city’s top doctor says that she suspects any benefit from the reinforcements will be “short-lived” due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases locally.
Last week, Toronto Public Health halted contact tracing of close contacts of confirmed cases outside of outbreaks in congregate settings like schools, long-term care homes and hospitals.
At the time, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa described the decision as a “temporary measure in response to very high case counts.”
However, the province has since confirmed that it will deploy 200 additional staff to Toronto Public Health over the next four weeks in order to help it keep up with the increased demand for contact tracing.
Speaking with reporters at a briefing on Monday, de Villa said that the additional resources “will help” but won’t necessarily allow her team to continue to contact tracing to the same degree that that they were earlier in the pandemic when case counts were much lower.
“Infections are rising at a rate that will very quickly outpace conventional case management and contact tracing no matter how many people are deployed to support it,” she said. “We have 700 case and contact managers, the most in the county and to be frank I expect we could have another 700 people added to the ranks and still be unable to contact trace with the same reach and same results as when infection rates were lower.”
De Villa said that contact tracing is a “painstaking and often very slow process under the best circumstances” and that with the city now reporting upwards of 300 new infections today the time has come to focus on actions “that affect the greatest amount of people in the shortest amount of time.”
She said that as a result contact tracers with Toronto Public Health will continue to contact all people who test positive for COVID-19 but will suspend the practice of contacting close contacts until such time as the city is able “to drive case counts down.”
“At this point our focus is on case and contact management of the most high risk cases and this means we are focusing on people whose infection poses the most risk to others and talking to the people who are ill rather than those who might be,” she said.
The premier's office has said that a minimum of 600 case managers and contact tracers will be supplemented to local public health units in the next five weeks, including the 200 to Toronto and 150 to Ottawa.
Ontario and the federal government, through Statistics Canada, provide contact tracing support to 22 public health units across the province.