Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Surrey, B.C., school teacher Ruby Stovern learned on Nov. 8 that her 16-year-old son tested positive for COVID-19. What happened next – or, more importantly, what didn’t happen – demonstrates how the public-health system has been overwhelmed in the second wave of the pandemic.

Their family of five immediately went into isolation, but the youth, Rykan, and his parents were left to reach out to anyone they may have been in close contact with in the days leading up to his illness.

“We were trying to clean the house, trying to find someone to buy our groceries, trying to make sure that we each had our own space and nobody was touching anybody else’s things. On top of that, we had to take on contact tracing,” Ms. Stovern said in an interview.

Story continues below advertisement

“We contacted everybody. [Rykan] contacted any students or friends that he may have come into close contact with. He contacted his teachers directly; he had to contact his tutor.”

She did the same with her workplace and other contacts – even before she developed symptoms herself.

But they never heard from Fraser Health Authority officials who were supposed to investigate the case. She began calling the health authority and, after 10 days, reached a public-health nurse who could not find a file on her son. A new file was opened, and Ms. Stovern was promised that the contact tracing team would reach out to help. That never happened.

The provincial government dramatically expanded its contact tracing capacity as part of its plan to restart schools and businesses after the first-wave lockdowns. The expectation was that these investigators would track every single confirmed case, working rapidly to retrace the infected patient’s whereabouts, and then contact anyone who could have been exposed to the virus to ensure that they would not, in turn, spread COVID-19 to others.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said Wednesday more than 900 people have been hired as contact tracers across the province – including 222 new hires in Fraser Health in the past week alone. Now, the federal government is offering support to that beleaguered health authority as well.

Since cases numbers began to climb sharply in November, however, the ability to keep up with contact tracing has been slipping. Increasingly, B.C. is unable to identify the source of each infection. And that is most acute in the densely populated Fraser Health region, which includes Surrey, the city that is currently “ground zero” for COVID-19 in the province.

Tracking COVID infections:

B.C.’s growing backlog

of unsolved exposures

No. of cases, Jan. 15, (week 3) – Nov. 14 (week 46)

Local-unknown

origin

Local-case/

cluster

International

travel

Pending, missing

exposure info.

Pre-phase 1

Phase 1

Phase 2

Phase 3a

Phase 3b

3,500

3,000

2,500

2,000

1,500

1,000

500

0

3

7

11

15

19

23

27

31

35

39

43

EPISODE DATE BY EPIDEMIOLOGICAL WEEK

** March 16: Travel related restrictions introduced.

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: bc centre for disease control

Tracking COVID infections: B.C.’s growing

backlog of unsolved exposures

No. of cases, Jan. 15, 2020 (week 3) – Nov. 14, 2020 (week 46)

Local-unknown

origin

Local-case/

cluster

International

travel

Pending, missing

exposure info.

Pre-phase 1

Phase 1

Phase 2

Phase 3a

Phase 3b

3,500

3,000

2,500

2,000

1,500

1,000

500

0

3

5

7

9

11

13

15

17

19

21

23

25

27

29

31

33

35

37

39

41

43

45

EPISODE DATE BY EPIDEMIOLOGICAL WEEK

** March 16: Travel related restrictions introduced.

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: bc centre for disease control

Tracking COVID infections: B.C.’s growing backlog

of unsolved exposures

Number of cases, Jan. 15, 2020 (week 3) – Nov. 14, 2020 (week 46)

Local-unknown

origin

Local-case/

cluster

International

travel

Pending, missing

exposure info.

Pre-phase 1

Phase 1

Phase 2

Phase 3a

Phase 3b

3,500

3,000

2,500

2,000

1,500

1,000

500

0

3

5

7

9

11

13

15

17

19

21

23

25

27

29

31

33

35

37

39

41

43

45

EPISODE DATE BY EPIDEMIOLOGICAL WEEK

** March 16: Travel related restrictions introduced.

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: bc centre for disease control

“I wouldn’t say we’re losing, but we’re on the edge for sure,” Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said Wednesday. “We committed very early on to testing, tracing and isolation, and we’re still barely managing to hold on to that. We’ve not abandoned that.”

Story continues below advertisement

The Fraser Health Authority has almost doubled the size of its contact tracing team in the past few weeks, with a staff of 350, plus the assistance of 40 more from the province.

Despite the new hires, Aamir Bharmal, who heads the authority’s contact tracing program, confirmed this week that the responsibility for tracking secondary exposures has shifted to those who have COVID-19. Up until about one month ago, contact tracers were able to track cases and then follow up with each individual’s close contacts.

“We try to notify people within 24 hours after receiving a lab notice,” he said. Individuals who have tested positive are now asked to inform any members of their household to isolate, he said, and to identify other people who might have also been in very close contact as well. “We indicate to the case that they should go ahead and notify all of those people to isolate.”

Dr. Bharmal said the change allows contact tracers to focus on a more in-depth assessment, such as trying to determine where the individual got infected. “These are challenging conversations to have, people are not always forthcoming.”

He said the contact tracers are working long hours and the growing caseload is disheartening. “There’s also a lot of people who are upset with us, who really don’t want to hear this news.”

While the health authority could not comment on the specifics of the Stoverns’ case, Matt Westphal, who represents Surrey teachers for the BC Teachers’ Federation, said the family’s story is not unique. “Teachers will frequently hear about cases in their schools, yet there’s no official word from Fraser Health,” he said.

Story continues below advertisement

School exposure notices are routinely being sent out late, sometimes two weeks after the fact. “That time lag really erodes the confidence people have in how much of a handle Fraser Health has on this,” he added.

Canadian authorities are assessing COVID-19 vaccine candidates while trials are underway, speeding up any eventual approval for wide use. But science reporter Ivan Semeniuk says it’s likely high-risk people will be prioritized for receiving any vaccine first, with some possibly getting it as early as the first part of 2021. The Globe and Mail

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies