Leaving contact tracing to the public 'irresponsible', Sask. nurses union says

·4 min read
Nurses and health-care workers say they're overwhelmed with a surge in COVID-19 cases in the province, and critics say relinquishing responsibility for contact tracing isn't the answer.  (Jeff Roberson/The Associated Press - image credit)
Nurses and health-care workers say they're overwhelmed with a surge in COVID-19 cases in the province, and critics say relinquishing responsibility for contact tracing isn't the answer. (Jeff Roberson/The Associated Press - image credit)

The Saskatchewan Health Authority announced on Friday it would leave COVID-19 contact tracing to the public, but experts and critics say removing that service will only stress the health-care sector.

In a news release, the SHA said that their new "modified approach" to contact tracing will place the responsibility of contact tracing on the COVID-positive person. The change means that the SHA will inform the person who has tested positive about how to trace, and leave it to them.

"Leaving this up to the public to do is … absolutely irresponsible, and it's putting all of us at risk," Tracy Zambory, the president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses said, calling it an "dereliction of duty" by both the SHA and the government.

"We have to be able to understand the transmission in our communities. Without that, we are really in a very vulnerable position."

CBC News
CBC News

Rising cases have stunted public health resources, the SHA said, making it difficult to contact trace fast enough.

Zambory said she's spoken with nurses who feel extremely nervous about the province's current pandemic trajectory.

The province reported 389 new cases and 138 people in hospital on Sunday, although Zambory said she's heard from nurses that case numbers could be skewed by a work backlog.

Contact tracing was, she said, an important part of Saskatchewan's offensive strategy. Now the health-care system will have to "brace for a storm that we can't see coming."

Contact tracing can take hours and Zambory doesn't expect the public to follow-up. Those who do won't be able to do the job as well as trained nurses, she said.

'We are clearly outnumbered'

Zambory said nurses are feeling "demoralized" and "exhausted" from the overwhelming effect COVID-19 has had in the province.

Carolyn Brost Strom, a registered nurse who is a positive case investigator in the north central area of the province, said in a Twitter thread that nurses are clearly outnumbered in their fight.

She wrote that for the five people on shift per day this weekend, they would have to handle several dozen cases.

On Saturday, when she posted the tweet, there were 91 new cases of COVID-19 in the area, and 476 active cases.

In a Twitter message sent to CBC News over her lunch break, she put the situation in the health-care sector into football terms.

"You are not going to win the championship (ie: end this pandemic) relying on defence alone (which is hospitals and ICUs), and with players on the injured list or free agency (staff burned out or leaving)," she said.

"You need your offence (your testing, case investigations, contact tracing) to put you ahead … We need the public's help (our 13th man) and we need the coach to come back [out] of retirement/sabbatical (the government) to make the right policy decisions (masks, mandatory vaccines, mandate isolation)."

Strom said that she, and others like her, need more help "from everyone."

Rising numbers require more services, not less: expert

Dr. Dennis Kendel, a health policy consultant, calls the government's decision "disappointing,"

"One of the sort of bedrocks of controlling community spread of any virus is the test-trace-isolate triad," he said.

"It's analogous to flying in the dark with no instruments ... you're going to crash into something."

Jason Warick/CBC
Jason Warick/CBC

Kendel expects numbers to rise in the province and peak in a month and a half. Dropping a protective service like contact tracing, he says, might not be risky if numbers were on the decline.

But, Saskatchewan is experiencing a steep incline of case numbers as it enters a fourth wave.

On Sunday, the number of active COVID-19 cases in the province hit more than 3,000 for the first time since January. In the past week, the number of active cases increased by more than 1,000.

Union asks for help for nurses

Zambory said that the nurses union met with 300 members from across the province on Thursday and heard that the majority felt "disrespected" and "demoralized."

"Registered nurses always run toward the fire because that's what we do. And they just can't they're getting to the point we're running toward that it's getting more difficult because they were burnt to a crisp and they're not getting any relief," Zambory said.

She wants the government to scale back less important health services in the province by 20 per cent to allow others — like contact tracing and emergency rooms — to catch up and to allow nurses a moment to breathe.

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