The New Pandemic Reality: Limited Testing and Do-It-Yourself Contact Tracing

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“The public is not trained to navigate these types of conversations. Even we in the health field find it difficult. ”

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When Paul Peters’ 11-year-old son suddenly fell ill on the weekend with a high fever and extreme fatigue, he immediately suspected it was COVID-19.

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His suspicions were quickly confirmed when the boy tested positive with one of the rapid antigen tests provided to Ontario schoolchildren to use while on vacation.

So began a rush that continues three days later for the Ottawa family amid the exponential spread of the Omicron variant and rapidly evolving public health advice.

The family’s experience illustrates the worsening situation in Ottawa as COVID-19 testing facilities and contact tracing teams overwhelmed by an explosion of new cases, leaving people waiting – or unable to make it – test and have to inform the contacts themselves. Fewer people are expected to qualify for PCR testing in the coming days, as essential workers and high-risk populations take priority.

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Twenty-one months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, “We are here in uncharted territory,” said University of Ottawa epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan of how the Omicron variant hinders the ability public health officials to respond.

Peters said her son started to feel unwell on Friday night and on Saturday had pain all over his body, headaches, a throat so sore he could barely speak and a temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

“I have never seen him with such low energy, I have never seen him so sick. We had to help him out of the bath, that sort of thing.

Paul Peters.
Paul Peters. jpg

Peters and his wife tried to book a PCR test for their son at the Brewer Park Children’s COVID-19 Assessment Center, but no appointments were available until Wednesday, December 22. Peters went to the Brewer Clinic in person, thinking he might be able to get a walk-in appointment or a take-home PCR test kit, but no luck either.

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Peters said he wanted to notify anyone his son had come in contact with before crucial days had passed.

The Ottawa Public Health protocol now says that if you have tested positive for COVID-19 on a PCR test, you must notify anyone you have been in contact with yourself as the contact tracing system is overloaded. . But the family were unable to get a PCR test in a timely manner for their son to confirm his positive rapid test and had no indication of what to do.

Peters decided that it was necessary to act immediately. What if it took a week to book a PCR test and get the results?

“We wanted all other parents to know that, and we wanted the school to know that.”

He informed the teachers, parents of children in his son’s class at Hopewell Avenue Public School whose contact details he had and also asked a friend with a Facebook account to post a review on a group of neighborhood to alert parents.

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Peters quickly received reports via email and Facebook that several other children in his son’s class had tested positive on PCR or rapid tests or were showing symptoms.

He also called Ottawa Public Health – they don’t answer the phones on weekends, he says – and 311 in an attempt to notify authorities of the situation.

“I wanted him to enter the system so that public health would be notified as soon as possible so that other parents would receive a letter.”

There appears to be a loophole in the system, Peters said. There was no public health instruction on whether to notify close contacts if you have a suspected case of COVID-19 or a case that has only been confirmed by a rapid test.

This will likely change as Ottawa Public Health continues to treat more cases than it can handle. But there will inevitably be gaps, experts say, as more of the burden of managing the pandemic will fall on individuals.

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On Monday, OPH tweeted that testing sites were seeing an unprecedented increase “and could not keep up with demand.” Public health has advised people to self-isolate if they show symptoms, have tested positive, or have been in close contact with a positive case.

The Ottawa COVID-19 Testing Task Force says testing will change in the coming days to prioritize essential workers and vulnerable populations.

The situation leaves the management of the pandemic more to individuals. And that creates challenges, especially at a time when pandemic fatigue has never been higher.

Do-it-yourself contact tracing, for example, is seen as a strategy of last resort to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is increasingly used in Ottawa and elsewhere in the face of the explosive growth of the variant. Omicron.

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This places an additional emotional burden on people already facing COVID-19. The uncertainty about advice adds to this burden. People who have had to call contacts report that they sometimes face anger and reluctance in addition to questions they can’t answer.

“The public is not trained to navigate these types of conversations. Even we in the health field find it difficult, ”said Fatima Tokhmafshan, bioethicist and science communicator who studies medicine. She said she had made calls on behalf of friends and found it difficult.

And, with high pandemic fatigue and some mild cases of the Omicron variant, it could become increasingly difficult to convince people to self-isolate, especially if testing and contact tracing is not widely available, said. Deonandan.

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Deonandan said the goal must be to continue slowing the transmission of the virus until more people are vaccinated in order to lessen its effects and protect young children who remain unvaccinated.

There will likely be gaps in the system as cases continue to rise, he said, but if enough people with symptoms stay at home and other policy tools such as limits on capacity are in place, that should make a difference.

Peters and his family, meanwhile, had first hand experience of the new reality of the pandemic.

“If it’s the Omicron strain, it looks so infectious,” he said. Her son was following all pandemic protocols at school. “I’m sure he was wearing a mask and they were following all the rules.”

Peters says his son is feeling better now. He, his wife and two other children are all isolated at home.

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