Toronto to resume contact tracing of COVID-19 to be ready for restrictions easing

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Toronto will resume its full contact tracing program and scale up other COVID-19 infrastructure measures as the city readies itself to ease restrictions on Nov. 14.

Dr. Eileen De Villa, Toronto's chief medical officer of health, said on Wednesday that the city's public health unit had increased its pre-pandemic case management and contact tracing team of 50 up to nearly 700 people, the largest in Canada. She noted that 200 more people would be added to the group and that three local hospitals would contribute to the effort.

"Our objective is not simply to do it well, but to be amongst the best in the world," De Villa said, adding that contact tracers would focus on identifying super-spreader events.

Toronto is one of four hot spots in Ontario -- along with Ottawa, Peel Region and York Region -- currently under tighter restrictions that closed gyms, cinemas and indoor restaurant dining.

Those restrictions will lift in Peel Region and Ottawa on Saturday, but Mayor John Tory asked the province to keep Toronto's restrictions in place for an additional week as the city works to curb cases.

Tory said on Wednesday he's believes that the extra week will be enough time to implement new safety measures, communicate the new guidelines to local businesses, and get Toronto's daily caseload lower.

"I'm confident that we can take the steps with the resources that we will apply as a city and through Toronto public health to be ready, to open safely, and to stay open safely," said Tory.

Toronto scaled back its contract tracing efforts in early October to focus on high-risk cases as the second wave of COVID-19 began to overwhelm the public health unit. At the time, the city said a rapidly rising case load made trying to connect with all close contacts of infected residents unsustainable.

There were 338 new cases in Toronto on Wednesday, with a total of 159 people hospitalized and 36 people in intensive care because of COVID-19.

Although Toronto's seven-day average for new cases continues to climb, De Villa said that context is important and more rigorous contact tracing will get the public health unit the data it needs to make informed decisions.

"Our objective is to reopen in as safe a way as is possible and to create the conditions and public-health infrastructure to support this," said De Villa. "It's not about business or health, we can and must support both."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2020.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press