Manitobans have been left to spread COVID-19 or kept home for far too long, due to a contact-tracing system that is chaotic and prolonging the pandemic, a trio of nurses says.

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Manitobans have been left to spread COVID-19 or kept home for far too long, due to a contact-tracing system that is chaotic and prolonging the pandemic, a trio of nurses says.

"Misinformation has led to spread within the community, and harms to people we care about and have a duty to protect," one of the nurses alleged, during a Friday news conference held by the NDP.

The Free Press could not confirm the identities of the three nurses, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. However, their experience echoes those of other Manitoba health-care workers.

The Pallister government later disputed the accounts, saying the NDP is playing politics.

The nurses said a group of roughly 20 public health nurses oversees hundreds of contact tracers from various agencies in and outside government, who do calls to check in with people who test positive for COVID-19 or are exposed to the novel coronavirus.

Contact tracing is run through a virtual call centre, leaning on an outsourced company, Statistics Canada, provincial staff and the Canadian Red Cross.

The nurses say these remote agents rely on written scripts that don’t do an effective job at getting people to open up about possible contacts or where they might have been exposed. They say interpersonal skills, cultural knowledge and trauma sensitivity are required to get Manitobans to give truthful answers.

The monitoring team of nurses is on call to deal with clinical queries through a chatroom, and vet calls for quality assurance, but the trio of nurses said Friday this group got overwhelmed in the second wave of the pandemic, due to laboratory backlogs.

The issue, they say, wasn’t in keeping up with the initial investigatory interview, but rather the daily calls done through active monitoring, and informing contacts they have been exposed to COVID-19 and should stay at home.

"Agents have mistakenly calculated the period of communicability for individuals who live in the community. They have advised them to come out of isolation before their transmissibility period is over," one nurse said.

She said that means people are out visiting workplaces, schools and relatives, not knowing they could still be infectious.

On the other hand, one person required to isolate for 10 days instead had to stay home for three weeks, due to one agent’s botched understanding of the provincial rules, the nurses claimed.

The health workers say they objected to the design of the system, but have had no success in raising concerns internally, through unions and regulatory colleges. "It’s very difficult. We’re working in a system that we don’t ethically or morally support any more."

Acting health minister Kelvin Goertzen said his government is acting based on science.

"All of the processes employed have been developed under the supervision of a medical officer of health and Manitoba’s public health leadership and, contrary to the NDP’s claims, there is a clear process in place to address any operational issues as they arise," Goertzen wrote in a statement Friday.

He noted the province had called in external agencies to top up its public health complement, and used text messages to bolster contact tracing work.

"Contact tracing is a critical part of our efforts to combat COVID-19 and, in order to do it successfully, we have bolstered the capacity of our public health system by calling in additional help," Goertzen wrote.

The NDP argue the nurses’ claims help to explain why the province has done such a poor job of containing spread in the second and third wave.

Provincial officials have insisted Manitobans don’t follow the rules, lie to contact tracers and rack up an unreasonable amount of contacts.

"They were shifting that blame to Manitobans, and that is not acceptable," NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said.

The NDP called for the province not to renew its contract with the private firm 24-7 InTouch Inc., and instead spend more on hiring public health nurses.

The province says it will monitor InTouch’s performance, as it decides whether to extend the contract by three months beyond its Aug. 24 expiration. The cost varies on usage, but Manitoba paid the firm $8.8 million for services between December 2020 and April.

Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief provincial public health officer, said Manitoba manages cases by assigning more complex ones to nurses, and letting external agencies handle the rest.

He acknowledged mistakes have been made as caseloads soared, but said the system is meant to catch errors.

— with files from Katie May

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca