A look at COVID-19 contact tracing in B.C.’s hardest-hit region
Dr. Aamir Bharmal will never forget the first COVID-19 case he and his team traced — a traveller who had arrived from Iran in late February. While the eyes of the world were focused on eastern Asia, this case was troubling. “Suddenly this told us that COVID was a lot more widespread than anyone had really thought,” said Bharmal. Six months on and counting, Bharmal said his team has tracked more than half of British Columbia’s total cases tallied up to mid-August.
At the time of that first case, Bharmal, a medical health officer for Fraser Health — the biggest health authority in the province — managed a team of 14 contact tracers. There weren’t yet restrictions on cross-border travel and international flights were still landing as normal in Canada when Bharmal learned the virus was not just in China. He quickly realized he’d need to build a “disease detective army,” bringing in more nurses, health inspectors, even speech and language pathologists, to create a team of 250 in case infections spiked.
Christine Kumar, a communicable disease nurse, couldn’t even guess how many of those calls were hers, saying simply, “So, so many.” She said her experience contact tracing for measles, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections taught her how to build trust quickly on the phone in order to learn the intimate details of a person’s life. “It’s kind of a microscopic exam of all of the behaviours that individual cases do at each setting,” said Kumar.
The work itself can take an emotional toll. Kumar is often the first person to break the news to someone that they are infected. Sometimes she has to interrupt a grieving son, daughter or spouse in the days, or even hours, immediately after a death to make sure the surviving loved one is isolating until their own symptoms clear. For Kumar, those calls are the worst part of the work. “That was a loved one to somebody and they’re no longer here, ” she said.
Bharmal told CBC’s Jodie Martinson that a contact tracer is “a mix of a nurse with a social worker with being a disease detective or epidemiologist and a bit of a therapist as well.” He and Kumar are both in their 30s and belong to the demographic health officials have blamed for the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in B.C. Despite the amount of work it takes to investigate each possible exposure, the duo live by the public health ethos to support people, rather than cast blame. “It’s easy to say how reckless of you,” Bharmal said. “We want people to share information and that requires us to take the approach of supporting people rather than stigmatizing them.”
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Ottawa extends CERB, announces new COVID-19 ‘recovery’ financial benefits
The federal government has extended the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) by one more month and revamped the employment insurance program to allow more people to receive financial assistance during COVID-19. The suite of benefit reforms, aimed at helping Canadians through the transition as the economy gradually reopens, is expected to cost $37 billion. The measures include greater flexibility on the work hours required for EI, making it easier for people to qualify for a one-year period.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough announced the new measures this afternoon in Ottawa. CERB, which has already paid out more than $69 billion to more than 8.6 million recipients, will now be in place until Sept. 27, extending the program — which pays people $2,000 a month — from 24 to 28 weeks. Canadians who were already eligible for EI will transition to that program when CERB winds down, while those who don’t qualify can apply for new “recovery” benefits.
A second new benefit will provide 10 days of paid sick leave to any worker in Canada who falls ill or has to self-isolate because of COVID-19. That will provide $500 a week, and a person can’t claim this benefit and another sick leave payment at the same time. A third benefit will support Canadians who must stay home to care for a child under 12 or another dependent because their school, daycare or other day program facility is shut down as a result of COVID-19. The three new recovery benefits, which will be taxed at payment and require parliamentary approval, are expected to cost $22 billion. Applications for the new recovery benefits will open in October, with payments flowing in three to five days.
3M to make critical N95 masks at Brockville, Ont., plant
The federal and Ontario governments have convinced manufacturing giant 3M to start making N95 respirator masks at its plant in Brockville, Ont., a move that will give Canada a domestic supply of critical personal protective equipment, CBC News has learned. The two levels of government and the company will evenly split a financial investment of at least $70 million to boost production capacity at the existing 3M facility in Brockville, with a goal of producing masks by 2021. Both levels of government have also agreed to long-term agreements to buy masks from the company.
Federal and provincial sources told CBC News the official announcement will be made Friday afternoon by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford in Brockville. Since the early days of the pandemic, Ottawa has made it a priority to boost the domestic PPE supply chain. It’s had success on products such as surgical masks, medical gowns and gloves. But Canada has been forced to rely heavily on factories in China and the U.S. for the more specialized N95 respirators — and there have been problems with both. Millions of Chinese-made masks failed to meet Canadian quality standards and couldn’t be used by front-line health-care workers.
Earlier this year, U.S. border officials stopped a shipment of masks headed to Ontario after President Donald Trump ordered 3M to stop exporting critical medical supplies aboard. That touched off a frenzy of high-level diplomacy so that Canada could secure an export ban exemption to keep the critical supplies coming. Because they run the health-care systems, the provinces buy most PPE supplies. The federal government has been backstopping those supplies by using its purchasing power to buy supplies on what has become a cut-throat international market.
Federal government has spent $37M so far on hotels for returning Canadians who can’t self-isolate at home
More than 3,000 travellers returning to Canada have spent the two-week quarantine period at a hotel paid for by the federal government, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). By the end of July, the cost of providing the quarantine sites had exceeded $37 million, PHAC said. The federal government reserved the hotel rooms soon after issuing a public health order on March 25 requiring a 14-day quarantine period for travellers returning to Canada. PHAC did not give a detailed breakdown of the costs but said they include accommodation, meals, transport, health checks and security. Some quarantine sites have a nurse practitioner on site 24/7.
“Quarantine facilities are used to lodge persons entering Canada who are unable to isolate or quarantine because they are unable to meet the conditions of the mandatory isolation order (e.g. live with a vulnerable person, do not have private transportation if they are symptomatic),” PHAC spokesperson Geoffroy Legault-Thivierge said in a statement. There are 11 federal quarantine sites across the country and another two run jointly by federal and provincial governments. The 11 federal sites can house a total of 1,500 people, Legault-Thivierge said. The rooms are available only as a last resort; before admitting anyone into a quarantine facility, government representatives work with them to ensure “all other options … within their own means have been exhausted,” PHAC spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau said in a statement.
Travellers interviewed by CBC News who stayed in the hotels said they were typically mid-range hotels located near airports. Vijayendra Yalavarthi, who arrived in Toronto from India in June under the federal skilled worker program, said he learned about the federal quarantine sites through online networks of people coming to Canada from abroad. There is no official government website that includes details, so Yalavarthi kept it as a backup option, only opting to use it when his Airbnb reservations fell through. CBC News interviewed several other travellers who expressed frustration that there were no details about the hotels available online. Overall, Yalavarthi said he is grateful for the experience and the measures the Canadian government is taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
WHO begins discussions with Russia about its experimental COVID-19 vaccine
The World Health Organization’s European office said it has begun discussions with Russia to try to obtain more information about the experimental COVID-19 vaccine the country recently approved. Last week, Russia became the first country in the world to license a coronavirus vaccine when President Vladimir Putin announced its approval.
But the vaccine has not yet passed the advanced trials normally required to prove it works before being licensed, a major breach of scientific protocol. Russian officials claimed the vaccine would provide lasting immunity to COVID-19 but offered no proof. Catherine Smallwood, a senior emergency official at WHO Europe, said the agency had begun “direct discussions” with Russia and that WHO officials have been sharing “the various steps and information that’s going to be required for WHO to take assessments.”
WHO’s Europe director Dr. Hans Kluge said the agency welcomed all advances in vaccine development but that every vaccine must submit to the same clinical trials. Find out more about the different COVID-19 vaccines under development here.
P.E.I.-based non-profit raising money for handwashing stations in Kenya
A P.E.I.-based non-profit is hoping to raise money for handwashing stations in the Mikinduri area of eastern Kenya. Mikinduri Children of Hope works with Kenyan leaders, churches, government agencies and international partners to offer a “hand up, not a hand out” for poverty alleviation, according to its website.
Kathy Mutch, co-chair of Mikinduri Children of Hope, said the community they work with is at a disadvantage when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19. “Water and soap are not easy to come by, and it’s a difficult situation in these rural communities,” she told CBC Radio’s Island Morning in Charlottetown. Mutch believes they can provide the stations for about $50 each, working with partners on the ground in Kenya to distribute them. “We just have to come up with the funds,” she said.
One of the organization’s larger fundraisers, an annual yard sale, was cancelled because of COVID-19. “We have had difficulty with our fundraising. We have concerns about the people in Kenya. They’ve struggled not only with COVID-19, but they’ve had locust invasions as well, which have affected their food security,” Mutch said. “The world is really a pretty small place, and Kenyans are our neighbours and they do need a hand up.”
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