Manitoba

COVID-19 case investigations continue to lag days behind case identification in Manitoba

COVID-19 case investigations in Winnipeg are lagging days behind positive test results, contrary to the premier's claim Manitoba has no more contact-tracing delays.

Delays remain despite premier's claim of 'zero backlogs on tracking and tracing'

A COVID-19 testing site in Steinbach, where COVID-19 cases are spiking. The province continues to suffer from contact-tracing delays, though delays have been reduced since October. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

COVID-19 case investigations in Winnipeg are lagging days behind positive test results, contrary to the premier's claim Manitoba has no more contact-tracing delays.

On Friday, Premier Brian Pallister said tracing delays are a thing of the past in this province.

"There's zero backlogs on tracking and tracing right now in our province," Pallister said during an interview that aired on Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday.

Backlogs, however, remain. CBC News has learned public health nurses in the Winnipeg health region started investigating COVID-19 cases on Monday that were identified as positive on Nov. 19 — a delay of four days — and are still working overtime to catch up on caseloads.

This four-day delay represents a vast improvement from October, when COVID-19 patients reported contact-tracing investigations lagging behind positive test results by as much as a week.

It nonetheless remains well behind the 24-hour timeframe epidemiologists have recommended for starting contact-tracing investigations in order to limit the spread of COVID-19.

"A twenty-four hour delay in getting a hold of somebody in a shelter, that's a disaster," said a public health nurse who CBC News is not identifying due to fears of repercussions.

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Delays are particularly important to avoid in Winnipeg, where people living in homeless shelters are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, the nurse said.

"When you get somebody on the phone that's living on the street and you're telling them they have COVID, it's a lot different than calling somebody who's living at home and have three people in their house."

Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union, said the four-day lag reported by the public health nurse is in line with what she's hearing from her members. 

"We're hearing that there is a lag — anywhere from a couple of days, to five days," said Jackson, adding some public health nurses are required to work evenings and weekends in order to catch up on caseloads.

"We know that public health nurses are still working excessive amounts of overtime. They're being mandated frequently. They're working through weekends. They're not allowed to go home until they finish contact tracing on cases. It's been it's been months like this, with no end in sight," Jackson said.

"I just find it very frustrating. We're already eight months into a pandemic and it just feels like we're just trying to get caught up now."

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer, made it clear on Monday the lag involves the time between the identification of a positive case in a laboratory and the handover of information about that case to public health.

"Almost all cases are reached within 24 hours of the report being reported to public health," said Roussin, adding some case investigations do not begin until the next day after that.

Province adding contact tracers

Case investigations are one aspect of contact-tracing in Manitoba. The province employs an average of 170 people per day — public health nurses and contractors with the Canadian Red Cross — to conduct these investigations.

The province also pays for an average of 80 people a day to notify contacts of known COVID-19 cases. Statistics Canada has been enlisted for this task.

The third aspect of contact tracing involves follow-up calls to infected patients. These are conducted by 43 staff and volunteers at the COVID-19 Contact Centre, jointly run out of the Deer Lodge Centre by Shared Health and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba chief public health officer, said most case investigations begin within a day of public health learning about them. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

On Monday, Health Minister Cameron Friesen promised to bolster these 203 positions with 143 more workers.

The public health nurse who spoke to CBC News said that won't help unless the reinforcements have specialized training.

"We need people who have the knowledge and the education to do proper contact-case investigations. It's more than just calling people and telling them they have COVID," the nurse said.

"We're doing health assessments and directing people where to go if their symptoms exacerbate. We're dealing with people who are structurally disadvantaged, who don't have home. I mean, those are things that public health nurses know, not somebody answering the phone at a call centre."

Contact tracers not allowed to work from home

The Manitoba Nurses Union also chastised the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority for not allowing COVID-19 case investigators to work from home.

Public health nurses are being subjected to unnecessary risks at the office — while some are unable to work because they are sick, isolating or caring for children, the union said.

"I do not understand why public health nurses are not allowed to access their files that they need at home and to work from home," Jackson said.

Roussin, who has urged all employers to allow employees to work remotely, encouraged the WRHA to consider doing the same.

"If you can make it feasible, if you can get the work done by being at home, then I would encourage all employers to to look at that," he said.

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.

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