Contact tracing a ‘team sport’ all British Columbians can play

By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter


So far, British Columbians have safely increased their interactions with each other, but the Province stresses that residents need to maintain physical distancing and minimize their close contacts through summer and beyond.

Modelling provided by the BC Centre for Disease Control and released by the Ministry of Health on June 23, 2020, revealed B.C.’s trajectory of positive COVID-19 cases versus Canada and several countries around the world.//Ministry of Health graphic

“Even though we’re having more contacts, we’re doing it in a way that is preventing transmission of infections,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer for B.C.

“As we gradually move into more things like hotels and spas and travel, we are going to increase those contracts,” said Henry. “Each of us has to keep those bubbles small, that is what is going to maintain us not having rapid growth of the virus.”

According to modelling released by the BC Centre for Disease Control, during the strictest period of public health closures, interactions between B.C. residents dropped to about 30 per of pre-pandemic levels. The latest move to Phase 3 brings interactions up to about 60 to 65 per cent of normal.

“This is my nervous level,” said Henry. Anything higher than 65 per cent risks causing an upsurge in positive cases. “We want to stay right about where we are.”

Keeping contact circles small means that when a person tests positive, public health officials can easily track down their close contacts.

“We act fairly quickly on any reports of positive tests,” said Dr. Rakel Kling, Northern Health medical health officer for the northern interior. “We do the real core public health work of trying to elicit all of their contacts and everywhere that they’ve been in the 48 hours before symptoms started, until the time that we’re talking to them.”

Not just who they’ve been in contact with, but the nature of the contact they’ve had with the person. “So, how long were they in contact with the person? How close were they?” said Kling.

Prior to B.C.’s first public health measures mid-March, people who tested positive for the virus had an average of 11 close contacts, two per cent of whom became ill themselves. After March 15, the average number of close contacts per positive case dropped to 3.6 contacts.

“Ninety-eight per cent of those people were reached within 24 hours,” said Henry. “A really important feat.”

However, because people were largely staying home at that time, those who tested positive were more likely to pass the virus on to someone in their close circle.

Ultimately, the effect of restrictions on larger gatherings was significant, she said. “We broke the chains of transmission in British Columbia by reducing the numbers of people that we had close contact with,” said Henry. “And by not giving the virus a chance to move to large numbers of people.”

As of June, the average person testing positive for COVID-19 had less than one close contact.

Contact tracing will be key during the summer, said Henry. “When we have moderate distancing measures in place, which I would say we’re at right now, we need to find about 75 per cent of people within one to three days to be able to effectively control the epidemic.”

Current levels of interactions between British Columbians are about 60 – 65 per cent of pre-pandemic contact rates and will result in small increases of new COVID-19 cases. An increase to 80 per cent would cause a spike in new cases. Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer, doesn’t want contact rates to rise above 65 per cent until a vaccine or treatment is developed. // BC Centre for Disease Control

If the number of cases gets too high, B.C. risks a resurgence, said Henry, pointing to several American states where relaxed distancing measures proved premature, causing tragic upswings in COVID-19 cases.

“Public health (is) a team sport, that all of us need to be committed to, to be successful,” Henry said. “As individuals we also have an important role to play in contact tracing.”

That’s a responsibility the owners of Beanery 2 Bistro have taken to heart.

“We are doing tracking,” said co-owner Donna Perkins, whose café has been open since early June. “We just felt it was to our clients’ benefit.”

The bistro keeps a voluntary sign-in book by the entrance for people to leave their name, and email or phone number. The information is kept for 30 days, then destroyed, she said.

“Should something come through here,” Perkins said, “then we have a way of letting them know that they might want to go get tested.”

The locals just need to leave their name. “Everybody in McBride knows everybody, and we know how to find them,” said Perkins. “Being a small town, they’d probably know I have outbreak before I did.”

Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / Rocky Mountain Goat / Fran@thegoatnews.ca

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