Toronto Public Health limits contact tracing efforts amid soaring COVID-19 infections

TORONTO — As new cases of COVID-19 in Toronto continue to climb, some residents who test positive for the disease will now be responsible for their own contact tracing, according the city’s health agency.

In an email, Toronto Public Health (TPH) says that when cases reach a high level, health officials must “make a strategic shift and temporarily re-prioritize case and contact management to focus on the highest risk scenarios.”

Speaking at a news conference on Friday, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said that “shift” in contact tracing would take effect immediately and last until cases start to trend downwards.

This means that some of those who test positive for COVID-19 in Toronto will now only be provided with instructions to notify their high risk contacts.

Prior to Friday’s announcement, the city’s dedicated case and contact management team, which consists of 700 people (the largest in the country), would conduct the contact tracing themselves and reach out to the patient’s high risk contacts.

De Villa has underscored the importance of contact tracing since the beginning of the pandemic, saying the protocol is paramount in curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus in the city.

The new rules only apply to those infected with the disease outside of congregate settings such as long-term care homes, hospitals and schools. Contact tracing will continue to be conducted by TPH for those infected with COVID-19 in any of those settings.

On Friday, Dr. Eileen de Villa penned an open letter to Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams asking for a series of new restrictions that would be in place for the city for the next 28 days.

The recommendations include the suspension of indoor dining at bars and restaurants as well as the cancellation of all group fitness classes and sports activities that take place indoors, essentially returning Toronto to something more closely resembling the lockdown that was in place in the spring.

“The reason I am asking the province to undertake additional public health measures is to drive overall case counts down,” de Villa said. “When this happens, we will return to the previous case and contact management strategies.”

On Saturday, TPH reported 335 new cases of the disease, the most of any of the province’s 34 public health units. It should be noted, however, that nine cases were added as a result of a “data cleaning initiative” and do not reflect new or recent cases.

Dr. Michael Warner, of Michael Garron Hospital in East York, argued that Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Dr. Williams are effectively putting “ankle weights” on TPH if they don’t listen to those calls from the city.

“It’s just not fair to Toronto Public Health to expect them to protect us when the provincial government won’t implement policies that will allow them to keep us safe,” he said speaking to CP24 on Saturday.

“Wave two is going to be far different than wave one, I think it’s going to be longer and could even be more intense unless Dr. Williams and Premier Ford make the decisions that are so clear and needed to be made two weeks ago.” 

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