Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver here.
When the spring lockdowns were lifted in provinces across the country, the key to keeping an eye on the spread of the virus was rapid and thorough contact tracing. The expectation was that these investigators would track every single confirmed case, working quickly 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.
British Columbia beefed up its ranks of contact tracers as the economy reopened and has done so again and again as the second wave has sent hundreds to hospital.
But despite those efforts contact tracing has not kept up, neither in British Columbia nor across Western Canada. This week, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, Bonnie Henry, plainly acknowledged the struggle.
“I wouldn’t say we’re losing, but we’re on the edge for sure,” she 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.”
Reporter Justine Hunter spoke to a Surrey mother, who vividly explained what the consequences have been for her as case counts in her region have exploded and contact-tracing efforts have cratered.
Ruby Stovern, who is also a teacher, learned on Nov. 8 that her 16-year-old son tested positive for COVID-19. 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.
“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.
In Alberta, where the province’s contact tracing was once championed as among the most robust in the country, the system began to struggle not long after infections started their sudden upward trajectory. At the beginning of this month, the province suspended most of its contact-tracing system for everyone but a few high-priority groups, such as health workers, people living in long-term care homes, and students and staff in the schools.
The provincial government said it was in the process of hiring 400 new contact tracers – bringing the total staffing to 1,200 – but progress has been slow. Earlier this week, Deena Hinshaw, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said contact tracers had such an extensive backlog that they were abandoning cases older than 10 days. They will be working through the backlog in reverse chronological order, meaning newer cases will be dealt with first and they will work backward from there.
The collapse of the contact-tracing system has meant the province has almost no idea where most people are getting sick. Even before the system began sputtering early this month, nearly half of all infections had no known source. Now, that number is 82 per cent.
That increased uncertainty comes as the province attempts to control the spread of COVID-19 by targeting areas identified as high risk by the data. Health experts have argued that the province can’t make informed decisions because it is using data from the summer, when new infections were quite low, rather than being able to respond to what is driving the rapid increase of infections today.
The strain on contact-tracing systems has been felt across Canada.
In Saskatchewan, which is also seeing a spike in cases, recent business closures were explained by the need to allow contact tracers to catch up. Health officials have said each infection requires hours of work. In one case, a person who tested positive had 150 contacts, while others have reported attending multiple social events while symptomatic.
Toronto scaled back its contact tracing in early October to focus on high-risk groups but resumed the full program earlier this month.
Aamir Bharmal, who heads the Fraser Health Authority’s contact-tracing program in British Columbia, confirmed this week that the responsibility for tracking secondary exposures has shifted to those who have COVID-19.
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.
Meanwhile, he said the authority’s contact tracers are dedicating themselves to more in-depth investigations in an effort to determine where the patient got infected. It sometimes doesn’t go well: “These are challenging conversations to have, people are not always forthcoming.”
It’s not likely those conversations go any better when it’s a sick individual making the call.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.
AROUND THE WEST
COVID-19 IN RURAL ALBERTA: Up until now in Alberta, COVID-19 has mostly been a health crisis in the province’s two largest cities. Areas outside of Calgary and Edmonton still don’t have comparable infection counts, measured at a rate of cases per 100,000 people, to the urban areas. But as the country is consumed by a second wave of the virus, some rural areas and smaller communities are seeing growth at rates that rival Calgary and Edmonton. Kelly Cryderman looked at the alarming increases in Alberta towns and Indigenous communities, sometimes located far away from major hospitals with ICU beds and ventilators, and often with more elderly populations.
SASKATCHEWAN’S COVID-19 CUSHION: The Saskatchewan government has inked a $100-million cushion into its mid-year financial forecast for any pandemic-related revenue shortfalls as the province deals with a spike in infections. The Ministry of Finance says that buffer is on top of $160-million left in a $200-million contingency fund to cover expenses tied to COVID-19. About $40-million was spent helping school divisions prepare for the resumption of in-class learning in the fall. The Finance Ministry attributes a rise in revenue at its mid-year forecast to be in part from $443-million more from Ottawa to help the province deal with the pandemic. Opposition NDP economy and jobs critic Aleana Young said the government should make available $18-million in unspent money that was for small business emergency grants during the spring shutdown of non-essential services.
LEAKED HEALTH OFFICER TAPES: A leak of audio recordings of Alberta’s Chief Medical Health Officer meeting with other health bureaucrats has amplified a debate about the role of top health officials across Canada. There have already been concerns in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and elsewhere about the role of chief medical officers and whether their advice is heeded. The CBC published details of audio recordings of meetings attended by Deena Hinshaw in the province’s internal emergency-operations centre. The story, which relies on the audio recordings and unidentified sources, depicts incidents in which Dr. Hinshaw and Premier Jason Kenney’s government appear to have been at odds over aspects of the pandemic response. Dr. Hinshaw, who called the leak a “personal betrayal,” says it should be up to elected officials to determine how the province manages COVID-19 and that her role is limited to providing advice about what that response should be. Legal experts say legislation across Canada generally gives chief medical officers of health broad authority to act during a pandemic or other public health emergency, but in practice they defer to governments to make big policy decisions such as whether to order business shutdowns.
B.C.’S NEW CABINET: B.C. Premier John Horgan introduced a new 20-member cabinet on Thursday. Adrian Dix remains health minister while Mike Farnworth stays as solicitor-general, with responsibilities that include enforcement of public health orders such as wearing masks. Mr. Horgan chose a new education minister, rookie MLA Jennifer Whiteside, a former union executive, as schools grapple with infections. Ravi Kahlon was chosen as minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation, to focus on economic recovery, and a new finance minister, former housing minister Selina Robinson, will be responsible for such election commitments as a means-tested $1,000 pandemic payout for B.C. families.
MANITOBA’S COVID-19 ENFORCEMENT: Manitoba plans to continue cracking down on retailers not following public health orders as officials say COVID-19 is starting to have an impact on vulnerable populations at a higher rate. The province issued a $5,000 ticket to a Winnipeg Costco this week for selling non-essential items. The Church of God near Steinbach was also issued a $5,000 ticket for holding a service last Sunday. The church has posted online its intention to hold another service this weekend. Brent Roussin, the province’s Chief Public Health Officer, said enforcement will continue because Manitoba’s health care system cannot sustain its current rate of infections. There were 322 people in hospital with COVID-19 on Friday, with 45 of them in intensive care. “These orders are in place to save Manitobans’ lives,” Dr. Roussin said. “An organization or individuals trying to find ways around it need to understand you are putting Manitobans at risk.”
HONG KONG FUNDRAISER: Artist Ricker Choi, who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in 1988, said he paid little attention to his homeland’s politics before the city’s protests, which were triggered by an extradition bill. After seeing two million people in Hong Kong march on the streets, he felt “something clicked and really moved.” Since then, he said he has followed the situation closely and has also participated in Canadian events aimed at demonstrating solidarity with the pro-democracy activists. Mr. Choi, who has a day job as a financial risk-management consultant, is selling prints of his paintings in an effort to raise money to help Hong Kong democracy activists who are fleeing to Canada for fear of persecution in China. The proceeds from his art sale are going to a fund set up by the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement. The group’s chair, Mabel Tung, said her society has been collecting funds to aid asylum seekers from Hong Kong since last year. So far, the organization has received more than $60,000, with more than half of it spent on current refugee claimants.
DECRIMINALIZATION: Councillors in Vancouver have voted unanimously to ask the federal government to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs. Mayor Kennedy Stewart put forward the motion earlier this month saying it is time to develop a “health-focused” approach to substance use and end the stigma against drug users. In a statement issued late Wednesday after the vote, Mr. Stewart thanked groups such as the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, which he says have pursued decriminalization for years. In the same process used to create its first supervised drug-use clinic almost two decades ago, city staff will now write to federal officials, including the ministers of health and justice, seeking an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
EMBRYOS: The B.C. appeal court has ruled against a widow seeking access to biological material from her late husband so she can have children beyond the one the couple had. At issue, says a court ruling this week, is that the deceased man left no written permission allowing the use of the material. The couple “did not turn their minds to the possible posthumous use of their reproductive material,” says the ruling, referring to them as Mr. and Ms. T. Jasmeet Wahid, lawyer for Ms. T, said in an interview Wednesday that she is seeking instructions regarding an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
EMPTY HOME TAX: Vancouver’s precedent-setting tax on empty homes will almost triple for 2021, prompting at least one other municipality in the region, West Vancouver, to push again for a similar tax. Vancouver city staff had recommended more study, but Mayor Kennedy Stewart encouraged council to agree to the big increase after a new federal report said the city’s and the province’s taxes on vacation homes and empty houses are the reason for a dramatic jump in the number of condos becoming available for rent in 2019. “I just think it’s working, and the [Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.] report confirms that,” Mr. Stewart said.
GOODBYE PANDAS: The Calgary Zoo says two giant pandas were sent back to their homes in China on Friday. The zoo said in May that it would be sending the pair back early because the COVID-19 pandemic was making it difficult to source bamboo. The zoo says on Twitter it was a difficult decision to send the pandas home three years earlier than planned. It says it took months of hard work to secure international permits to get the pandas home. The zoo posted photos of reams of paperwork needed for the journey, the crates that were to carry the pandas and the Lufthansa Cargo plane that was to take them to China.
Marsha Lederman on how arts organizations have been treated in the pandemic: “Sometimes the show actually cannot go on. As this pandemic has cruelly demonstrated, there are more important musts. We must stay safe. It would be hard to find an arts organization in B.C. that disagrees. But these groups – who do so much, often with very little – deserve better than the disregard with which they have been treated.”
Gary Mason on the leaked Deena Hinshaw tapes: “However, the tapes have not made Mr. Kenney look especially culpable for Alberta’s recent surge in the virus. The recordings were made in the summer, for starters. Some of the disagreements between the Premier and Dr. Hinshaw were around the efficacy of certain testing measures. There is evidence that she was annoyed, at times, by some of Mr. Kenney’s demands around data and evidence collection – but again, I’m sure her counterparts across the country have often felt the same way about their bosses..”
Max Fawcett on Jason Kenney’s use of the Charter to defend his pandemic response: “But make no mistake: the Charter doesn’t give cover to governments that don’t want to do what’s required to limit the devastating effects of a pandemic, and it doesn’t explain their decision to slow-roll any public health measures or restrictions. Maybe conservatives would understand that if they spent more time reading the document and less time cynically trying to hide behind it.”
Stephen Legault on Alberta’s self-defeating story: “Our story of ourselves as Albertans continues to get in the way of our ability to capitalize on that transformation. We can’t seem to see ourselves in this new global narrative. We produce oil, thank you, and we do it cleanly and without the conflict and human-rights abuses that make other petroleum products less desirable. (Never mind that neither of those narratives is entirely correct.) The story that much of the world is telling is: ‘We are rapidly transitioning to a clean, green economy and we will reward energy producers who transform with us.’ These stories simply don’t mesh.”