Public Health can no longer trace all COVID-19 cases in Peel

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With Peel (Brampton, Mississauga and Caledon) rapidly becoming one of the worst-hit regions in Canada, public health officials say they can no longer contact trace every single positive case of COVID-19. 

"Given the surge of cases, we introduced a change to contact tracing and we'll only trace our highest risk exposures and contacts," says Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel's Medical Officer of Health.  

"We'll ask residents to contact their own high-risk contacts." 

The situation in Peel has devolved quickly, with Loh recently stating that a full lockdown cannot be ruled out in a region that's recording almost as many daily new cases (and sometimes more) than the more densely-populated Toronto. 

On Sunday, Nov. 15, the province announced that 308 new cases were recorded in Peel. The day before, Peel reported 497 new cases. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, virus spread in Peel has been driven by outbreaks in non-public facing workplaces (mainly manufacturing and processing-type facilities), households (Peel is home to many multi-generational houses with six or more residents) and private social gatherings such as house parties and weddings. 

"At these case levels, contact tracing is becoming increasingly fraught," Loh said at a press conference held last week.

"This means that we are deep in our community's second wave. Until now, there have been lots of questions about what's open and what's closed. That time is long past. We are now seeing widespread community transmission in the City of Brampton and in Peel."

The news about contact tracing comes more than a week after Loh said that he would be implementing additional public health measures in the "Red-Control" region.

Earlier this month, Loh said that wedding receptions and holiday or celebratory gatherings in business establishments will not be allowed until at least Jan. 7, 2021. As of now, restaurants—which can only seat up to 10 people indoors at any one time—are not allowed to seat guests who do not live together at the same table. 

He also asked residents to refrain from attending weddings outside of the region and asked that people avoid visiting other people's homes or having guests over—including for outdoor meetups. Loh said that exceptions to the houseguest rule can be made for essential supports (such as caregivers) and those carrying out household renovations and repairs. Loh had initially proposed a legally-enforceable ban on all private social gatherings, but that does not appear to be on the table any longer. 

Loh also encouraged workplaces to allow employees to work from home as much as possible and advised against group instruction at gyms and fitness centres.

"I ask that you limit contact to members of your immediate household and essential supports only. Those that live alone may join one designated home and stay exclusive to that home," Loh said earlier this month. 

"I ask that you limit all in-person activities to essential activities only. This includes work, school, exercise and fitness, access to health care and the purchase of necessities."

On Nov. 9, the province announced that it was “taking immediate action” to enhance the local public health response to COVID-19 in Peel by expanding access to testing, increasing case and contact management and increasing hospital capacity. 

The province said that up to 70 case and contact management staff have started onboarding to support Peel Region directly. The province also said that 10 public health units across the province with lower case counts are now assisting Peel Region with case investigation.

The Ontario government also promised to help the region's overloaded hospitals, pledging $42 million for up to 234 new beds in Peel and Peel-area hospitals such as William Osler Health System's Brampton Civic Hospital and Etobicoke General Hospital and Trillium Health Partners' Mississauga Hospital, Queensway Health Centre and Credit Valley Hospital.

The federal government has also stepped in, offering to create a much-needed isolation facility for COVID-19 positive residents who cannot safely isolate at home. 

Loh says that while further, widespread closures are a possibility for Peel, he wants people to focus on eliminating contact with those outside their immediate household as much as possible. 

"There's a lot of conversation about what's open and closed, but people must limit close contact to their household only—no social gatherings," he says.

Cover photo courtesy of The Canadian Press

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