A request for proposals by the province for a private call centre to investigate COVID-19 cases is causing "grave concern" among Winnipeg nurses.
On Wednesday, nurses who support coronavirus contact tracing efforts sent a letter to Premier Brian Pallister and Health, Seniors, and Active Living Minister Cameron Friesen warning private call centres lack the public-health expertise required to contain the virus.
"It’s alarming to see an RFP come out for private industry to do COVID-19 case investigation, contact tracing and daily monitoring when there was no consultation done whatsoever with the public health nurses," said a nurse, who requested anonymity and works closely with COVID-19 public health investigation team.
"The province, without consulting us, has totally circumvented a system that is already well established."
Last week, Friesen said the province intends to hire outside help for COVID-19 contact tracing and to add capacity in the event cases spike severely and overwhelm the system.
Currently, contact tracing is based out of the province’s Public Health COVID-19 Contact Centre, and each health region has a team of communicable disease coordinators, medical officers and public health nurses responsible for investigating new cases, teasing out all the contacts, health counselling and ensuring everyone isolates as they ought to.
On Friday, the province reported a five-day test positivity rate of 2.3 per cent and 32 new cases of COVID-19, including seven in Winnipeg. An employee at the Safeway at 600 Sargent Ave. reportedly tested positive on Aug. 25, according to Sobeys Inc., and a staff member at the A&W at 1078 St. Mary’s Rd. tested positive, the fast-food chain told CTV.
Eighteen new cases are located in the Prairie Mountain Health region, which includes the city of Brandon. Two employees at the Safeway located at 18 Street North in Brandon tested positive for the virus. The employees last worked Aug. 19 and 20, according to the company.
To effectively investigate cases as they come up, COVID-19 public health nurses must collaborate with other facilities and sectors, the nurse said, including provincial laboratories, corrections, emergency medical services, Canada Border Services Agency and alternate accommodation centres.
The nurse believes positive cases will slip through the cracks and contact tracing efforts could be delayed because a call centre couldn't match the communication chain in the public health system.
"We believe the workload is going to get bigger, but I firmly believe to do that contact tracing and to mitigate the spread of the virus in our communities, we have to have the skilled, trained individuals doing the contact tracing." – Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union
"We’re looking at not only COVID-19 cases and contacts going up, we’re looking at more COVID-19 deaths, because a private call centre can’t manage that," the nurse said. "A call centre doesn’t have that overall high-level analysis, looking at a map at what’s happening in the community, a call centre can’t do that."
Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union, said giving contact tracing responsibility to the private sector is short sighted in a pandemic that’s anticipated to last a year or more. Provincial dollars would be better spent hiring nurses and training current health care providers, or students in communicable disease control who can be called on when needed, she said.
"We believe the workload is going to get bigger, but I firmly believe to do that contact tracing and to mitigate the spread of the virus in our communities, we have to have the skilled, trained individuals doing the contact tracing," Jackson said.
And while public health nurses outside Winnipeg are stretched as community transmission and cases climb, especially in Brandon and the Southern Health region, Jackson says untapped capacity remains in other health authorities.
"I think that we’ve gone to an RFP, to a privatization, when we don’t need to. I think there’s other solutions," Jackson said. "I say this is a long-term issue. We know COVID is here to stay and this is not going away in the next week or so. Let’s invest in our public health system."
In a statement, a spokesperson for the provincial government said work is underway internally to manage public health’s contact tracing capacity, but did not answer questions related to the nurses' concerns.
"This RFP is being issued to ensure additional contact tracing capacity is available should case numbers increase further in the fall," the spokesperson said.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.