Ex-volunteer says Manitoba contact-tracing backlog began well before Winnipeg COVID surge

A former volunteer for the provincial COVID-19 call centre says Manitoba fell behind on some of its contact-tracing demands more than a month before the number of Winnipeg-area cases exploded.

Paid and volunteer contact tracers handed the task of calling up close contacts of known COVID-19 cases couldn’t keep up with the demand in late August and early September, said Matt Mayer, who spent three weeks volunteering out of the call centre at Winnipeg’s Deer Lodge Centre.

Mayer, a certified patient advocate with a pair of microbiology degrees, was recruited through a federal COVID-19 volunteer portal to work at the Manitoba call centre, which is jointly run by Shared Health and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Mayer’s job was to call up close contacts, order them to self-isolate and then follow up to see if they developed symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19.

“It was always more than I could manage in a single day,” he said, adding the centre didn’t add more staff even as their contact-tracing efforts fell further behind.

Mayer said when he started at the Manitoba call centre on Aug. 23, he was told to try reaching close contacts three times a day. That direction soon became twice a day and then once.

“If we didn’t reach someone by phone with their very first phone contact, we skipped them for 24 hours,” he said.

Mayer said he was soon told to spend no more than five minutes on the phone with any contact, regardless of the questions they had or public health advice they needed.

Former call-centre volunteer Matt Mayer says paid and volunteer colleagues couldn’t keep up with the demand to notify close contacts of COVID-19 patients in late August. (Submitted by Matt Mayer)

He claimed he was reprimanded for diverging from the telephone script, berated by paid colleagues if he spent too much time with contacts and once followed into the washroom by a manager who claimed he was spending too much time there.

“All of this was related to the stress of not having enough resources to call everyone who we needed to call,” he said, adding he inquired when the contact centre would add to its complement of eight paid staff and 12 volunteers.

“I was told, no, that there won’t be more paid people. But if I knew anyone else competent who could volunteer, please, by all means, bring them in, try and have them come in and help,” he said.

August backlog a portent

Mayer said his call centre experience, which occurred during a spike in cases in the Prairie Mountain health region, left him unsurprised the province has struggled to keep up with contact tracing demands when the Winnipeg health region experienced a far greater spike in cases one month later.

The initial contact with people who tested positive with COVID-19 is handled only by public health nurses, not volunteers, said Bronwyn Penner Holigroski, a spokesperson for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Darlene Jackson, the president of the Manitoba Nurses Union, said the province declined numerous offers to redeploy members of her union — especially immunocompromised nurses sidelined from working on the front lines during the pandemic — to contact-tracing work. 

“We’ve been advocating for months (to) take those nurses who are at home not working, train them and let them do contact tracing,” Jackson said. “They basically ignored our suggestion.”

Nonetheless, health authorities insist they had not fallen behind in August and only recently suffered the backlogs that included delays of as long as a week to contact positive cases.

“Even during the surge in Prairie Mountain, we were well-staffed to complete contact tracing in a timely way,” Penner Holigroski said in a statement.

Manitoba Public Health said in a statement it is “always monitoring our ability to conduct case investigation and contact notification as quickly as possible.” Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, insisted Monday the province scaled up its complement of contact tracers.

Public health declined to comment on Mayer’s allegations of mistreatment as a volunteer but said telephone scripts must be followed.

Hutterites received special treatment, volunteer says

Mayer also said he was told to treat close contacts on Hutterite communities more gently than close contacts in other communities.

“We were instructed, first of all, to not mention the fines to these people, and second of all, to basically not even sort of push and say, well, ‘They should really be at home right now,’ because  the manager explained, well, technically they’re still at home because it’s their fields,” Mayer said.

“The thing is, they’re communal farms. No one goes and does the farming by themselves, right? You do it with your community.”

Kenny Wollmann, a member of the Hutterite Safety Council’s COVID-19 task force, said he was not aware of this directive to treat his community differently and doesn’t know what it was supposed to accomplish.

Manitoba Public Health declined to comment on the directive.

“In general, regional health authorities may opt to manage daily monitoring activities with particular populations in Manitoba as they have formed a relationship with those communities,” it said in a statement. “At this time, information on fines is not a component of any contact and case investigation calls.”

People stand outside in this file photo from the Baker Hutterite Colony in Manitoba. (Sheri Hofer/Baker Hutterite Colony)

Roussin said contact tracing is catching up with its current backlog. Resources were redeployed over the weekend, he said. 

More help is coming from the Canadian Red Cross, which the province has contracted to conduct contact tracing.

Up to 50 Red Cross workers will be added to the provincial complement within weeks, Health Minister Cameron Friesen said Tuesday.

The province declined to say how many contact tracers it employs right now. Public health said the number fluctuates according to the number of cases and the sharing of staff between health regions.

“A concrete number is not available at this time,” it said in a statement.

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