British Columbia

Northern B.C. teacher, hair stylist do their own contact tracing as official warnings fall behind

An elementary school teacher who found out he was exposed to COVID-19 had to wait a week before his students were notified of the risk. Now he's speaking out about delays in contact tracing he worries could be putting more British Columbians in danger of infection.

Fast-moving virus is too much for an over-worked health system in the North, they say

An elementary school teacher in Terrace, B.C., wanted to warn his students immediately when he found out he was exposed to COVID-19, but was told to wait for an official notice. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

An elementary school teacher who found out he was exposed to COVID-19 had to wait for a week before his students were notified of the risk. Now he's speaking out about delays in contact tracing he worries could be putting more British Columbians in danger of infection.

Cole Stephens teaches at Upland Elementary in Terrace, in northern B.C. On Dec. 1, he received a letter informing him there had been a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 at his son's daycare a week prior.

That same day Stephens' wife, Miranda Leffler, developed symptoms and called Northern Health to book a test. She also asked whether Stephens should stay home to avoid the possibility of spreading the disease further.

"I said, 'My husband's a teacher, we know we've been exposed and now I have symptoms. Should he be staying home?' " Leffler recalled. "They said 'No, unless he has symptoms … or unless someone in your house tests positive he can go to work.' "

Still, Stephens decided to take the day off as a precaution. He developed symptoms that evening, and test results would later confirm that he, his wife and his son were all COVID-19 positive. And again, Stephens' first thought was of warning his students.

"I didn't develop symptoms until Wednesday evening, but I was probably contagious on the Monday and Tuesday," Stephens said. "And that means the students in my class and the people that I work with were exposed to me. I mean, we have COVID procedures, but still. Those kids were exposed to me."

Stephens informed his colleagues of the situation, and asked whether he should send an email to his class. He was told to wait for direction from public health and it wasn't until Dec. 7 — a full week after Stephens first knew he'd been exposed to the virus — that a notice was issued.

'The right thing to do'

Coast Mountains School District confirmed it is unable to issue exposure notices until it is directed to do so by health officials. Northern Health was unable to provide comment on this story by deadline, but neither Stephens nor Leffler think the district or Northern Health did anything wrong. 

Instead, they worry the system is becoming overwhelmed and moving too slowly to effectively stop transmission of the virus. The number of cases of COVID-19 in northern B.C. is spiking, with as many as 50 positives being reported daily, up from single digits just one month ago. This puts additional burdens on both the testing system and contact tracers.

 
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control says only contacts who were directly exposed to a person's respiratory droplets need to be notified when they test positive for COVID-19. Some British Columbians are going beyond those standards. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)

That's why Stephens and Leffler took it upon themselves to warn their contacts as soon as they found out about the case at their son's daycare — prompting at least one person to go into self-isolation a full week before they were called by an official contact tracer to inform them of the risk.

"It felt like the right thing to do," Leffler said of the decision to do her own, DIY contact tracing. "I would want to know right away if somebody that I had been in contact with had tested positive."

She's not alone. More individuals and businesses are going public when they find out about possible COVID-19 exposures, sometimes even when health officials say it is not necessary.

DIY contact tracing

That's what happened at Butter Hair and Co. in Terrace. On Nov. 26 a client called to let them know that her spouse had tested positive, and she was feeling ill. The stylists who had worked directly with the client were sent home to self-monitor, despite not being told to do so by health officials.

"We were absolutely allowed to continue working," said co-owner Andréa Harmel, who was one of the stylists who opted to self-isolate. "We wear masks, we sanitize everything, we go above and beyond all the procedures."

Still, she didn't want to run the risk of exposing anyone else to the virus, even if the chances of transmission were low and she had yet to develop symptoms. She was motivated in part, she said, by wanting to live up to the same standards she set for her clients.

"We ask these very specific questions when people come in the door, like 'Have you been in close contact with anyone who has COVID or anyone who is waiting for test results?' " she said. "I felt like it would be unfair to not follow my own rules."

 

It took several days, but eventually Harmel and the other stylist developed symptoms and tested positive. Looking back, she says she's grateful for the early warning her client gave her — allowing her to take action days before she would have if she relied on contact tracers to reach out.

Harmel emphasized she doesn't think Northern Health acted improperly, but she hopes her story inspires others to go above and beyond the baseline rules to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by reaching out to contacts directly.

"I'm so thankful to this client for telling us," she said. "Because myself and this employee were not at work … it potentially stopped some serious stuff from happening."


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.

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