Health·Second Opinion

Canada has an army of volunteers ready to help fight COVID-19 — so why aren't we using them?

Thousands of Canadians have volunteered their time to help track COVID-19 cases across the country, but even Canada’s hardest hit provinces haven't used them.

More than 50k volunteers signed up to help with contact tracing, data collection but they are not being used

Contact tracing is a key tool used to prevent new cases of COVID-19, but Canadians aren't being used to help despite thousands volunteering. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

Thousands of Canadians have volunteered their time to help track COVID-19 cases across the country, but even Canada's hardest-hit provinces haven't used them.

The National COVID-19 Volunteer Recruitment Campaign was launched by the federal government in early April, calling on Canadians from coast-to-coast to step up and help. 

"We need you!" the campaign urgently stated. 

"We are building an inventory of volunteers from which provincial and territorial governments can draw upon as needed. We welcome ALL volunteers as we are looking for a wide variety of experiences and expertise." 

Canada's chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, tweeted the campaign on April 12 to Canadians wondering how they could help with the COVID-19 response. 

Volunteers were called on to help with three key areas: case tracking and contact tracing, assessing health system surge capacity, and case data collection and reporting. 

Health Canada and The Public Health Agency of Canada said 53,769 people signed up to assist in the effort by the time the posting closed on April 24. 

But weeks later, the volunteer database does not appear to have been used in any province or territory — even in Ontario and Quebec, where 90 per cent of Canada's new COVID-19 cases are now occurring.

"As contact tracing responsibilities fall under each provincial and territorial jurisdiction, they are determining when and how they will train and deploy volunteers to meet their evolving needs," a spokesperson for Health Canada and PHAC said.

CBC News reached out to every provincial and territorial health ministry in the country and none could confirm they had used any of the volunteers.

Health Canada said it also shared names from the volunteer database with the Canadian Red Cross to help personnel in long-term care facilities. 

But a spokesperson for the organization said they have only "recently started the initial process of reaching out to some of the individuals who submitted their names."


This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of eclectic and under-the-radar health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven't subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.


Canadians ready to help

Toronto teacher Shalini Basu found herself unexpectedly unemployed due to the global coronavirus pandemic, after her contract ended in March and schools across Ontario closed for the remainder of the school year. 

"I read about volunteers for the database on Twitter and thought it would be a great way to use my time and be useful, seeing as though I have a lot of free time these days," she said.

"I follow the news very closely and it seemed like there was an urgent need for volunteers." 

She filled out an extensive questionnaire online and was excited to help at a time when there wasn't much else she could do for others — aside from staying home. 

But Basu still hasn't heard anything. 

Volunteers said they were extensively questioned on whether they had medical experience, military experience and even veterinary experience to gauge where they could be best put to use. 

But despite calling on people with a "wide variety of expertise," many volunteers are left wondering who exactly the federal government was hoping to use. 

"I hope by not being called it also means that a lot of Canadians applied and they filled their quota," Basu said. 

"I've been wondering how much this initiative actually got underway."

More than 53,000 people signed up to volunteer from April 12 to 24. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Paul Baker also wanted to help. 

The retired Guelph, Ont., senior has a background in marketing and felt he could be put to use reaching out to confirmed COVID-19 cases by phone to help track their close contacts. 

"There is that first step that's got to be taken in contact tracing, which is calling the person that's positive and they know they're positive, so it's not going to be a stressful situation," he said. 

"Then you turn that over to somebody who's got more training in how to actually call somebody and say, 'You might be COVID positive.'" 

Baker spent 45 minutes filling out the questionnaire, and hoped to be called on to help in other areas of the province or the country that had a high volume of new cases or outbreaks in long-term care homes.

But weeks later, he hasn't received an update. 

'Federal-provincial divide'

Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, says the motivation for the campaign was commendable and compared it to a "wartime effort." 

"Congratulations to the government for having that initiative up front, because they recognize contact tracing would be a big part of this," he said. 

"But there clearly wasn't a subsequent plan to use the roster in a strategic way and there wasn't a subsequent plan to navigate the federal-provincial divide." 

Because each province and territory has individual public health units that allocate resources and make decisions at a local level, Deonandan says a national database of volunteers would be challenging to roll out effectively. 

"I'm not really surprised," he said.

Even one of his PhD students in epidemiology volunteered and never heard back, Deonandan said.

"What needs to happen, obviously, is for the provinces to take over the contact tracing capacity in a meaningful way and maybe even restart the volunteer rostering process — because I'm still getting people contacting me asking how they can get involved." 

While more advanced interventions could be left to professionals, volunteers feel they could help make initial contact with COVID-19 patients over the phone to trace their close contacts. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Dr. Michael Warner, medical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto, has been calling on Ontario to step up contact tracing as the province continues to move toward reopening despite a steady stream of high caseloads

"Anyone who knows what it's like to go after something, can use a telephone and has a high school education can be trained to do the work," he said. Both his parents — one of whom is a university professor — had volunteered and never heard back.

"I think public health is so overwhelmed that even managing a bunch of new people, whether they're hired or volunteers, is probably something they can't handle." 

Contact tracing key to stopping spread 

A recent study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal found isolating positive cases and contact tracing played a key role in controlling the spread of COVID-19 in Shenzen, China.  

Patients that were found to have COVID-19 because they reported symptoms of the disease were identified at an average of 4.6 days after they reported getting sick. 

But contact tracing of those close to them, such as in the same household, reduced that time to just 2.7 days on average. 

Another recent study published by JAMA Internal Medicine examined the first 100 confirmed COVID-19 patients in Taiwan and found they were most infectious in the days leading up to showing symptoms and in the five days after. 

That study stresses the need to identify potential cases that may have been unknowingly exposed, but not know they're sick yet, to effectively contain the spread of the disease.

"These findings underscore the pressing public health need for accurate and comprehensive contact tracing and testing," Robert Steinbrook wrote in an editor's note. "Testing only those people who are symptomatic will miss many infections and render contact tracing less effective."

Ontario needs to increase contact tracing in order to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the province, says Dr. Michael Warner. 9:11

The World Health Organization also says contact tracing is "an essential public health tool for controlling infectious disease outbreaks" that can "break the chains of transmission" of COVID-19.  

Volunteers could help not only with tracing contacts of COVID-19 patients, but also with cutting down the time it takes to notify public health units of positive cases, Warner said. 

"One of the biggest sources of a lag in effective contact tracing is the time it takes from the moment the patient is swabbed to the time that piece of paper arrives in the fax machine at the public health office," he said. 

"We've got we've got people on the bench willing to work, but they probably don't even have the capacity to open that list and look at those names because they can't even do the job they've been tasked to do."


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About the Author

Adam Miller

Senior Writer

Adam Miller is senior digital writer with CBC News. He's covered health, politics and breaking news extensively in Canada, in addition to several years reporting on news and current affairs throughout Asia.

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