Expect underreported COVID cases after N.B stops notifying close contacts, expert says

·3 min read
New Brunswick Public Health now relies on people infected with COVID-19 to notify their close contacts and pass along isolation guidelines. (Stéphane Mahé/Reuters - image credit)
New Brunswick Public Health now relies on people infected with COVID-19 to notify their close contacts and pass along isolation guidelines. (Stéphane Mahé/Reuters - image credit)

Expect COVID-19 cases in New Brunswick to go underreported following a change in how people are notified they've been exposed to a case, says an infectious disease expert.

Throughout the pandemic, Public Health has talked about how contact tracing has helped with managing the spread of COVID-19.

But as of Tuesday, Public Health will no longer take on the responsibility of notifying persons that they're a close contact of a positive COVID-19 case.

Pretty much when I hear those kinds of changes, I start to think about every place and person around me as potentially having run across COVID. - Lisa Barrett, infectious disease doctor

Instead, the government will rely on people infected with COVID-19 to notify their close contacts, and provide instructions on how to isolate, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell said this week.

Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease doctor and researcher at Dalhousie University, said she thinks most people will follow this new guidance, but there likely will be some who fail to notify all the right people.

"I actually have a great deal of faith in humans, but this is also an infectious disease, right? And there's a certain amount of stigma that's still associated with being positive, and some people may find it very difficult to share that information with other people.

"So I do think that there is the likelihood that we will see lots of people, for various reasons, not able to contact all the people they should or to let all the people know that they'd maybe want to."

CBC
CBC

During a news conference Tuesday, Russell said Public Health contact tracers will only contact the individual who tested positive or their employer, and will provide them with isolation and testing guidance.

Contact tracers will also provide advice to infected persons on what to tell their personal close contacts regarding testing and isolation procedures, she said.

Updated information on the government of New Brunswick's COVID-19 website says Public Health will instead "focus on notifications for high-risk settings."

"Contact tracers will also conduct abbreviated interviews in an effort to reduce the backlog. Public Health will only step in for contact notifications if no other means are available."

In an interview on Shift NB, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard, when asked why the process was changed, said it was part of a "transition to living with COVID" and was made to make better use of human resources.

"With the number of cases we have, it won't be possible for contact tracers to get to everyone in a good timeframe," Shephard said.

"So we get everyone to help and, and we try to mitigate risk as much as possible."

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

Barrett said the move reflects the increasing pressure on Public Health staff to keep up with rising case numbers.

Daily new cases in the province have topped 100 for more than a week, with 237 reported on Wednesday.

"As an infectious disease doctor, [the change in policy] is an indicator that the virus is not just in the community, but the community virus level is high," she said, noting changes coming from the Nova Scotia government with regards to testing.

"And pretty much when I hear those kinds of changes, I start to think about every place and person around me as potentially having run across COVID."

Heading into Christmas, Barrett said, it's crucial for people to limit their interactions to a few essential contacts, in order to limit the spread of the virus.

With the Omicron variant spreading across Canada, including New Brunswick, Barrett said it's crucial that people take even stricter precautions than what the government is advising over Christmas, at least to buy time for officials to better understand the risks the variant poses.

"If you've got to write down names because you're seeing so many people, you're seeing too many people," Barrett said . "That's the take-home message."

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