Toronto Public Health will no longer reach out to close contacts of people with confirmed COVID-19 infections in the community, to triage resources amid an overwhelming number of new cases in the city.
Known as contact tracing, finding and isolating those who have been in contact with people who have tested positive is seen as a crucial part of the strategy to fight the virus in clusters from the White House to local bars and restaurants.
Outside of outbreak settings, the agency will now focus on finding people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 through a lab test, assessing their symptoms and determining if they can self-isolate away from others, said spokesperson Lenore Bromley in an email, Saturday.
The contact tracers may make a referral to Toronto’s new Voluntary Isolation Centre if people can’t self-isolate safely at home, she added.
But in a huge shift, they will no longer ask for that person’s contacts, to call them and tell them to isolate and get tested.
Instead they will “provide instructions to the person to notify their high-risk contacts,” said Bromley.
A high-risk contact, clarified Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vinita Dubey, in a followup email, is sometimes also called a close contact. That’s anyone who spent at least 15 minutes, in “close proximity” without physical distancing, with an infected person.
That could be, for example, someone who lives in the same house, a friend who came over for a board game night, an extended family member who dropped by for dinner, or even a stranger at a fitness class.
Toronto Public Health will continue to investigate and report on outbreaks in hospitals, long-term care, retirement homes, shelters, schools, and child-care settings, Bromley added. There is no change to contact tracing policy or procedures there.
They will also continue to report on the number of positive cases each day, the number of people who’ve recovered and the number of deaths.
On Friday, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa, said in a letter to the province that public health needed to make a “strategic shift” and “temporarily reprioritize case and contact management to focus on the highest risk scenarios.”
She added that this is a “temporary measure,” due to “very high case counts.”
The Toronto contact tracing team has expanded in response to COVID and is the largest in the country, she added, with almost 700 people dedicated to the work.
In the same letter, she warned more must be done to “protect Toronto against the dangerous extent of COVID-19 resurgence.” She asked the province to temporarily restore the ban on indoor dining at bars and restaurants, and on indoor sports practices and fitness classes, in response.
“The reason we have asked the province to undertake additional public health measures is to drive overall case counts down, Bromley added in her email.
“It’s part of our shift in priorities as we respond to the increase in infections. 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. When cases go down, we will return to the previous approach.”
Fort York Councillor Joe Cressy, who chairs Toronto’s Board of Health, said the “volume of cases in our city is putting our hospital sector and public health sector at risk.”
He added that “in the absence of immediate measures undertaken by the provincial government, that will get worse not better.”
After a record-setting 732 infections reported on Friday, the province has put a pause on social circle bubbles, placed more restrictions on gyms, bars, restaurants and banquet halls in COVID-19 hot zones and made masks mandatory across Ontario.