British Columbia

Endless phone calls, painful conversations part of COVID contact tracing in B.C.'s hardest hit region

A team of up to 250 people have placed more than 170,000 phone calls since the first positive cases were identified in February to people in the Fraser Health region who have confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19.

Over 170,000 phone calls have been made by Fraser Health tracers since February

Contact tracer Christine Kumar outside a Fraser Health office in Delta, B.C. on Wednesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Dr. Aamir Bharmal will never forget the first COVID-19 case he and his team traced — a traveller who had arrived from Iran in late February. While the eyes of the world were focused on East Asia, this case was troubling.

"Suddenly this told us that COVID was a lot more widespread than anyone had really thought," said Bharmal.

At the time, Bharmal, a medical health officer for Fraser Health — the biggest health authority in the province — managed a team of 14 contact tracers. There weren't yet restrictions on cross-border travel and international flights were still landing as normal in Canada when Bharmal learned the virus was not just in China.

He quickly realized he'd need to build a "disease detective army," bringing in more nurses, health inspectors, even speech and language pathologists, to create a team of 250 in case infections spiked.

Dr. Aamir Bharmal leads a team of up to 250 contact tracers in the Fraser Health region who must identify and track people who have, or are suspected to have, COVID-19. (Fraser Health)

Six months on and counting, Bharmal says his team has tracked more than half of the province's total cases tallied up to mid-August. 

Communicable disease nurse, Christine Kumar, couldn't even guess how many of those calls were hers, saying simply, "So, so many."

She says her experience contact tracing for measles, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections, taught her how to build trust quickly on the phone in order to learn the intimate details of a person's life.

"It's kind of a microscopic exam of all of the behaviours that individual cases do at each setting," said Kumar.

Painful personal moments

The work itself can take an emotional toll.

Often, Kumar is the first person to break the news to someone that they are infected.

Sometimes she has to interrupt a grieving son, daughter or spouse in the days, or even hours, immediately after a death to make sure the surviving loved one is isolating until their own symptoms clear.

Contact tracer Christine Kumar, a communicable disease nurse, is often the first person to break the news to someone that they have the disease. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

For Kumar, those calls are the worst part of the work.

"That was a loved one to somebody and they're no longer here, " she said.

Bharmal also spoke about the skills needed for the job.

"A contact tracer is a mix of a nurse with a social worker with being a disease detective or epidemiologist and  a bit of a therapist as well," he said.

Bharmal and Kumar are both in their thirties and belong to the demographic health officials have blamed for the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in B.C.

Despite the amount of work it takes to investigate each possible exposure, the duo live by the public health ethos to support people, rather than cast blame.

The team at Fraser Health has tracked over half of the province's more than 4,000 COVID-19 cases as of mid-August. (CBC News)

"It's easy to say how reckless of you," Bharmal said. "We want people to share information and that requires us to take the approach of supporting people rather than stigmatizing them."

To hear CBC Vancouver's Jodie Martinson interview Fraser Health COVID-19 contact tracers, tap here.

With files from The Early Edition

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