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Manitoba’s resource-strapped COVID-19 contact tracing system is getting a robo boost.

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Tuesday a new automated, outbound calling system will be rolled out this week. It will eventually be used to maintain contact with people diagnosed with COVID-19 and those ordered to self-isolate.

Initially, Roussin said the system will be used to call people who have reached the end of their isolation period, to determine whether they have recovered from the disease and can be removed from active case rolls.

"We have a lot of people who are far past their incubation periods that we haven’t officially taken off of our contact list or taken off our active case list — and this is one way to make that process more efficient," Roussin said.

A new automated, outbound calling system will be used to maintain contact with people diagnosed with COVID-19 and those ordered to self-isolate, says chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

A new automated, outbound calling system will be used to maintain contact with people diagnosed with COVID-19 and those ordered to self-isolate, says chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The change to the contact tracing and monitoring program comes well into the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, as public health officials attempt to bring the province’s active caseload under control.

For weeks, Manitoba has been reporting triple-digit increases in new COVID-19 cases daily. Public health investigations were finding many people who tested positive were reporting numerous close contacts.

According to the latest weekly surveillance report published by the province, covering Nov. 8-14, one individual in the Winnipeg region had 105 close contacts while they were ill.

As of Tuesday, Manitoba reported 8,677 active cases, though that number is inflated due to delays in data entry. Roussin said a more realistic estimate of the active caseload is closer to 3,360.

In the second phase of the program’s rollout, Roussin said the automated call system will be used to reach confirmed cases and their contacts.

It’s expected all people currently diagnosed with COVID-19 and their close-contacts are followed up with by public health periodically, to confirm self-isolation orders are being followed.

Automating that step of the contact tracing and case management continuum will speed up the process and free up others to do work that requires a human touch, officials said.

"The automated call will provide the quickest, most efficient way to get Manitobans information they need and make informed decisions from the proper public health direction," Roussin said.

"People will be asked important information about testing, self-isolation, and other public health guidelines in a question-and-answer format, with (responses) provided via the keypad of the phone."

“The automated call will provide the quickest, most efficient way to get Manitobans information they need and make informed decisions from the proper public health direction." –Dr. Brent Roussin

Manitoba's top doctor noted his office is considering extending the service to report test results or to send emails and text messages.

"This will allow us to be responsive and reach people sooner," Roussin said. "Individuals will continue to receive calls from public health officials. However, the combined automated calls and the current monitoring process will be more efficient and effective than redirecting resources."

A provincial spokesperson said government will be running the automated calls in-house, using a web-based platform.

Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson welcomed the additional support for contact tracing, but said it won’t reduce the heavy workload of those who conduct initial case investigations.

"With yet another high case count today, public health nurses are in need of support," Jackson said. "First, we need the public to heed public health orders: stay home. Don’t socialize outside your household. Go out only for essentials, and wear a mask.

"Second, the Pallister government must bolster their nursing recruitment and retention efforts, make it easier for retired nurses to come back into the system, and bolster capacity for all stages of COVID cases."

COVID death toll in Manitoba hits 248

Another 12 Manitobans have died of COVID-19, and 476 new cases of coronavirus were announced Tuesday.

Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, said five of the deaths were in the Winnipeg health region, five were in Southern Health, with one each in Prairie Mountain and Northern Health.

"These are not just numbers," Roussin said. "These are Manitobans who are missed and are loved."

As of Tuesday morning, 292 people were in hospital with COVID-19, including 47 in intensive care. Provincewide, there were 8,677 active cases. The five-day positivity rate was 13.9 per cent in Winnipeg; 14.2 per cent provincially.

Another 12 Manitobans have died of COVID-19, and 476 new cases of coronavirus were announced Tuesday. 

Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, said five of the deaths were in the Winnipeg health region, five were in Southern Health, with one each in Prairie Mountain and Northern Health.

"These are not just numbers," Roussin said. "These are Manitobans who are missed and are loved."

As of Tuesday morning, 292 people were in hospital with COVID-19, including 47 in intensive care. Provincewide, there were 8,677 active cases. The five-day positivity rate was 13.9 per cent in Winnipeg; 14.2 per cent provincially.

A total of 248 Manitobans have died from COVID-19.

The deaths reported Tuesday include:

— A man in his 60s linked to the outbreak at St. Boniface Hospital's Unit E6;

— A man in his 60s linked to the outbreak at Health Sciences Centre's Unit A4;

— A woman in her 60s linked to the outbreak at St. Norbert personal care home;

— A man in his 80s linked to the Parkview Place outbreak;

— A man in his 80s linked to the outbreak at Villa Youville care home;

— A man in his 80s linked to the outbreak at Oakview Manor;

— A man in his 90s linked to the Fairview care home outbreak;

— A woman in her 90s linked to the Rest Haven Nursing Home outbreak.

Of the new cases, 247 were in Winnipeg, 111 in Southern Health, 38 in Northern region, 37 in Interlake-Eastern, and 33 in Prairie Mountain.

Meanwhile, an outbreak was declared at Northern Lights Manor in Flin Flon. Outbreaks in Units E5 and E6 at St. Boniface Hospital have ended, officials said.

— Kevin Rollason

Montreal-based public health and epidemiology expert Carl-Etienne Juneau said, at this stage in the pandemic, limited evidence exists on the effectiveness of automated case and contact monitoring.

However, emerging studies suggest automation that includes emails, text messages and robocalls can streamline the process — though it will not replace a public health workforce.

"If the cost is very low and there’s little risk of using it, I guess why not? But we shouldn’t expect it to be a panacea," Juneau said.

A study from Norway, where people were asked about their compliance with quarantine orders, suggested just 42 per cent of COVID-19 cases actually followed the rules, Juneau said.

By comparison, South Korea reports more than 99 per cent compliance with quarantine orders, though that country uses cellphone data, credit card transactions, and surveillance systems to track people, he said.

"There’s serious privacy concerns and it comes down to a trade-off. And if we only monitor people by an automated calling system where people self-report, and there are little consequences of not respecting the quarantine, then you might end up with an epidemic that’s not controlled," Juneau said.

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
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Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.

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