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High caseload puts health unit behind on COVID investigations

'We are doing our best with the caseload that we have, but it is having an impact on our speed,' said Dr. Charles Gardner
dr gardner 2 2020-03-12

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit is falling behind on its investigations into transmission sources and possible outbreaks because of the increase in COVID cases in the region. 

Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the region, provided an update on Tuesday (Dec. 8) and said the health unit has moved to a more triaged system for case and contact update. 

By using a rapid response team, the health unit is prioritizing letting people know when they test positive and need to self-isolate. But further investigation into the case and possible transmission source has to wait. 

“We lag in our ability to get detail on our cases,” said Gardner. “It’s just a function of the volume of cases and volume of contacts we have at this time. We’re bringing in more staff, referring more to Public Health Ontario, and we’re approaching the province to be able to tap into additional human resources they would have for us to address this challenge.” 

That also means the current list of reported cases is lagging behind compared to actual positive cases confirmed by testing in the region. Since Sunday, the health unit has reported 215 cases in the region. The last seven days have produced an incidence rate of 45.4 cases per 100,000 people, which is high enough to qualify the region for the province’s red zone restrictions under the COVID-19 Response Framework. 

"We are doing our best with the caseload that we have, but it is having an impact on our speed," said Gardner. "There's some delay in processing of data and getting some data entry." 

That also impacts the health unit's outbreak declaration process. 

"It is taking us longer now to be able to follow up and thoroughly investigate them and furthermore declare some of the outbreaks," said Gardner. "We're having to prioritize situations." 

Specifically, a large outbreak or cases within vulnerable populations, such as long-term care homes, would take precedence. 

According to the health unit website, the case and contact team is reaching approximately 78 per cent of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases within one day of receiving their test result. They are reaching 77 per cent of high-risk COVID-19 contacts within one day of receiving report of their exposure. The health unit’s goal is to reach 90 per cent of cases and contacts within 24 hours of receiving positive test results.

There are currently three outbreaks at long-term care and retirement institutions in Simcoe County. An outbreak is declared at a long-term care facility with just a single case in a staff or resident and there doesn’t have to be evidence of spread within the facility. 

Waterford Retirement Community in Barrie is in outbreak status with one confirmed staff case reported Dec. 6

Mill Creek Care Centre, also in Barrie, has one positive staff member case reported Dec. 6. 

Simcoe Manor, which was out of outbreak, has returned with a single staff case reported Nov. 29.

In Midland, Georgian Bay General Hospital is also in outbreak. The hospital has reported 15 cases, but the health unit is slightly behind hospital reporting and has confirmed 12 of the 15 cases on its health stats web page. 

There are outbreaks at three secondary schools and two elementary schools. An outbreak is only declared at a school when evidence of spread can be identified. The schools include Bradford District High School (four cases), Banting Memorial High School in Alliston (four cases), Nantyr Shores Secondary School in Innisfil (five cases), Steele Street Public School in Barrie (three cases), and Barrie's Portage View Public School (four cases). 

The health unit is also tracking three congregate setting outbreaks. One is a group home in Simcoe County where there have been 35 cases confirmed (21 staff and 14 residents) positive for COVID-19 since Nov. 20. 

Another group-home outbreak in Simcoe County includes one staff case. A third congregate setting outbreak was declared at a Simcoe County facility on Dec. 2 and involves one staff case. 

Gardner also confirmed a community setting outbreak linked to a Barrie church which was first declared on Dec. 1 and was declared over on Dec. 7. There were five cases linked to that outbreak. 

There are three workplace outbreaks in Barrie, including one essential service (declared Dec. 1, three cases), one retail location (declared Dec. 2, two cases), and one corporation (declared Dec. 4 with eight positive staff cases). 

The Canada Post distribution centre on Morrow Road in Barrie has confirmed an outbreak on their premises with 10 staff positive. Gardner wouldn’t confirm whether the Canada Post facility was among the three workplace outbreaks he reported. 

Six employees at the Collingwood Loblaws have been confirmed COVID positive since last week and more than a dozen other staff members are self-isolating as a precaution, but the health unit has not declared a workplace outbreak there. Gardner said it is still under investigation.

He noted the health unit is often criticized for not naming a business specifically when an outbreak occurs at a workplace. 

“We provide information to protect people,” he said. “If people are part of an outbreak, we directly inform them. Most of the time we can get the names of individuals and follow up and manage that situation. We provide the names of facilities if that’s not the case.” 

He specified the health unit will notify high-risk close contacts where there is a high likelihood of transmission. 

According to the health unit website, someone wearing a mask and physical distancing, even if there is a positive case nearby, would not qualify as a high-risk close contact. 

“COVID-19 is in our communities, but not all exposures are high-risk, particularly if face coverings are worn,” states a post on the health unit’s Facebook page. “If you hear of a positive case at a local business or community setting that you recently visited, self-monitor for symptoms. If you have a symptom, get tested and self-isolate until you get your results.”

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Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 15 years of experience as a local journalist
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