Better Contact Tracing Essential: Requires Improved Public Health Systems

Recently, I came across the following graph of the waves of the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919. I don’t know the exact source of this graph. However, the information on the graph lines up exactly with what the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) describes as the three waves of the Spanish Flu.

To be clear, nobody at this time knows if the same pattern will be followed by COVID19. We know that the flu tends to have decreased transmission in humid weather, but we don’t know if COVID19 (caused by a different virus) will follow that pattern. Or even if that will make a difference during the first season of a pandemic. There’s a nice video explaining that here.

However, should this pattern be followed by the COVID19, suffice it to say that we are all in for a very long road ahead.

So what can be done to reduce the intensity of the second and third waves (if they come)? Physical distancing of course is number one on the list. While many physicians (myself included) suggested not wearing masks in public initially, we know know that doing so will keep YOU from spreading COVID19 if you are a carrier. So wear a mask. Finally, we need a robust tracking and isolating system (aka Contact Tracing) for people who test positive for COVID19, which frustratingly, we don’t have right now.

Widespread testing for COVID19 along with Contact Tracing is what the four most successful governments in the world have done to control the spread of COVID19. We need to learn from these governments. But for now it is something that we seem to be unable to do in Ontario, and there are multiple reasons why.

Piecemeal Structure of Public Health Units (PHUs)

The first is the piecemeal structure of PHUs in Ontario. Now to be clear, PHUs are manned by terrific doctors and front line staff. I had the pleasure of meeting many of them during my term as President of the Ontario Medical Association and they are all excellent, hard working people. But the infrastructure of PHUs, from the point of view of this family doctor, leaves a lot to be desired.

By my count, there are about 40 Public Health Units across the Province. To a large extent, they work somewhat independently from each other and use different referral forms. My office has patients from patients in both the Grey Bruce and the Simcoe Muskoka health units, and while the staff in both units is excellent, it’s frankly annoying to have two different sets of forms to refer patients (and have two different formats of reports come in).

Worse, not all of the Public Health Units are on an electronic records (seriously, some use paper), and there is not one consistent electronic record for PHU’s across the Province. This only complicates the collection of data and the ability to Contact Trace.

Curiously enough, addressing the disjointed nature of the public health units was something that the current provincial government tried to address early in it’s mandate. Part of the initial plans were to reduce the number of PHUs and standardize the processes. This was supposed to result in savings of 25% in the PHU budgets. (NB – personally I can’t see that much in savings, I’m thinking closer to 10% would have been achieved).

Of course given what happened with the COVID19 pandemic, and the “two second sound bite” nature of our media reporting, the story has become “Doug Ford cut spending – we have a pandemic – solution – spend more”. It’s a nice simple argument. “Hey we spent more money, problem solved.”

However, just spending more on public health (and to be clear again – I support wise investments in public health), isn’t enough. There’s no sense in spending more on a disjointed system. What’s needed is to get all the PHU’s across the Province to integrate into one standard electronic system of record keeping, so that they can more efficiently and effectively contact trace.

More Wide Spread Testing for COVID19

Next of course, we still need more wide spread testing, and ideally we need something called “point of care” testing. Once again, the four countries I referenced earlier led the way in testing as many people as possible. So this needs doing as well.

APP for Contact Tracing

Finally, we really should authorize a provincial app for Contact Tracing. Alberta already has one. Alberta has taken many precautions to ensure that patient privacy is protected (app does not use GPS, has a randomized non-identifiable ID, erases data every 21 days etc). We could just use that one, or a more Ontario centric one like this excellent one developed by physicians . It has some what more features and ease of use but uses GPS. Better yet, why not link and App to a patient’s own health care portal like MyChart, which already integrates COVID19 test results?

As the New York Times pointed out, Contact Tracing is hard. However, we need to get on with it. Without effective Contact Tracing, we can’t mitigate against the potential second and third waves of this pandemic. Without mitigation, the economic and health disaster will continue and untold millions more will continue to suffer.

Here’s hoping that instead of just throwing money at a problem, governments of all levels invest smartly at the right tools (standardized PHUs, contact tracing APPs etc.) to deal with the COVID19 Pandemic. The alternative is too frightening to consider.

The Cruelty of COVID-19

We’ve been living with restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic for over two months now. I recently lost a patient due to COVID-19, and this loss caused me to reflect on the effects of the disease, and it’s impact on society. There really is only one word to describe it.

Cruel.

This disease is unrelentingly, unwaveringly and inexorably cruel.

This has nothing to do with the actual pathology (the conditions and processes) of the disease. That in itself, is in line with a bad viral illness. You (mostly likely) get a fever,cough muscle aches, etc. In people who are predisposed (elderly, those with immune compromise) COVID-19 is more likely to get into the lungs and cause inflammation. There is, of course a much higher rate of death for those who have multiple other medical conditions.

Doctors have seen viral illnesses throughout the years, and this pattern of the weakest among us been more adversely affected is one that we are all aware of. Indeed, my patient was elderly and had a number of medical problems. Truth be told, it would not have been unexpected for my patient to have died anyway from any of the other conditions they had. While tragic and sad, the fact that COVID-19 took them when infected, is no real surprise.

Instead, however, the cruelty of this disease is manifested in how my patient, and the grieving family spent the last days. My patient was in hospital, isolated, and alone. No family could visit. No comfort in their last days and no ability for the family to say goodbye, which I know will haunt them for a long time to come.

But it is not just the patients with COVID-19 who are dealt this cruel fate at the end of their lives. Another patient recently died in hospital due heart disease and was COVID-19 negative. Didn’t matter, the new restrictions in place to increase physical distancing and reduce spread (all of which make sense on a population level), meant that they too, died alone, with no contact from family, and the grief of not saying goodbye will haunt their loved ones as well.

This doesn’t apply just to hospitals either. The local hospice (my community is fortunate to have one of these) has new, stringent guidelines in place for their palliative patients. Only one visitor per patient at a time. A maximum of two people allowed to visit at all (what happens if you have more than two children who want to say goodbye). Common area not to be used, so no sharing your grief with other families (which is often therapeutic).

Yes, I know, communication via online tools and phone is encouraged. But we humans are social creatures. We need to see each other in person. We need to hold hands. We need to hug each other. We need physical contact. Yet we can’t have it. Of course, this is necessary and appropriate. But that doesn’t make them any less cruel.

The further medical victims of COVID-19 are of course, the patients whose care has been delayed while waiting for the acute stage of the pandemic to pass. My patient who has a growth on her ovary, and has not been able to get a repeat scan (and worries daily about what it could be). My patient with chronic hip pain who was already waiting for 12 months for their hip replacement surgery before it got cancelled since it was “elective”. Numerous patients with cancer who have had their treatments delayed. The 35 (minimum) whom the Health Minister herself said may have died due to the care that was delayed by this pandemic.

Then of course, there are economic victims. The 44% (!!) of Canadians who lost work due to the pandemic. They now struggle with finding ways to pay the bills and provide shelter and food for themselves and their families. The toll as they struggle is heartbreaking.

We are also seeing an increase in domestic abuse, more people with alcohol and drug problems relapsing, and warnings of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in physicians and allied health care workers who treat patients with COVID-19.

All of the above are victims of the cruelty perpetuated by COVID-19.

But in all that, there is, to my mind, hope.

There has also been this year an explosion of gentleness, kindness and decency amongst Canadians. Whether it is a grass roots group like ConquerCovid19 (which has, to my mind saved an untold number of lives and reduced morbidity), or simple acts of gratitude like shining a light for doctors, these acts make a difference. Whether you provide PPEs, or grocery runs, or other support to health workers, you are making a difference. Whether you call your friend to check on them after they have lost their loved one, or check on isolated seniors, you will make a difference. Whether you sing songs like these students or these doctors, you will make a difference (seriously, click the links, those songs are great).

Or if you are the unknown (to me) person who left this on the front lawn of my office building…

… you made a difference.

“Gentleness is the antidote for cruelty.”Phaedrus

Indeed, while it seems that COVID19 is inexorably cruel, the gentleness and kindness that has been exhibited by so many people proves that we will get through it, and we will succeed. It will not be easy. And we will need more kindness and gentleness than we thought possible, but we can do it.

Human kindness has never weakened the stamina nor softened the fibre of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.” Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Canadians have shown COVID19 what we are made of this year. We have shown it that its cruelty is no match for our kindness. We have shown it that we will beat it and all it’s complications, though it will take time and continued effort.

So continue to be good to one another. And together, we will win.

Mornings

Note: The following blog was written by new OMA President Dr. Samantha Hill (pictured). It was originally published on protecthealthcare.ca. That website is dedicated to supporting health care infra structure so that you health care needs are taken care of.

The alarm goes off.  I wake my kids, get them dressed, brush their teeth. I hug them a little longer than usual.  Run my hands through their hair. They get wiggly, and I let them out onto our balcony.  It’s an enclosed space off the third floor, about the size of a bedroom.   It’s fresh air, a space to be loud (sorry neighbours!) and some vitamin D.

We go downstairs, they get breakfast, I get tea, and I try to help get them set up for the day.  My eldest, the 5-year old, has e-learning.  He’s bright as a whip with the attention span of a pregnant goldfish, a wild creature who lives to run and move and make his friends laugh. These days are hard. He tells me he’ll try harder today, but I know he is trying as hard as his developing brain can.  This just isn’t how 5-year-olds are supposed to be learning.  The two-year-old is blissfully oblivious to most of the changes.  I kiss them both one last time and go to the door.  

Will today be the day I can’t come home?  Should I have hugged them a little harder, a little longer? My sister sees the look in my eyes and sends me all the strength she can: We’ll see you soon.  I am eternally grateful to her for being here, for having moved from another province to help me.  I’m a single mom, and a cardiac surgeon.  In these harrowing days, family support is a blessing I do not take for granted.  There are not strong enough words to express my gratitude.

I cover up as much as I can.  I am carrying only my hospital ID, phone, a credit card, and a folded cloth bag.  Everything, including my clothes, will get sanitized and washed when I get home.  If I get home.  My hair is tied up and covered to keep a layer between me and others coughing on me.  I wear a mask.  It won’t protect me, but as a health care worker I am more likely to contract COVID-19, and the rate of asymptomatic carriers is high.  I didn’t spend my life learning how to help people heal to be the vector that kills people I never met. Don’t worry though, I use the same mask everyday, no PPE wasted here.

I get to the hospital.  It’s familiar but different now.  The walls and doors and people are the same, but the vibe, the soul, it’s instantly heavy.  We are greeted by a masked security guard who ask for ID.  We queue six feet apart to scan our ID.  “Have you had any symptoms of the flu, fever, cough, travel history….”.  A quick no, and a beep, and we sanitize our hands.  Next step: “will you be in a patient-facing area?” and we are handed three flimsy masks in a plastic bag.  I thank the volunteer handing them out.  There’s no need to comment on how insufficient this is to keep me safe, my children safe, my patients safe.  We all know.  But we hold these masks like talismans, warding off evil.  May they be enough.  At least for today.  It’s a pandemic after all, front line workers can only deal with one day, one patient at a time.  If we look too far ahead the incoming tsunami will drown us in our own fear.  So for today, we take our masks, sanitize our hands and keep going. 

I tie on my first mask and head down the hall.  People give each other a wide berth.  We may be smiling at each other, but you can’t tell.  Fear looms in the eyes peering over the blue fabric.  Get my scrubs.  Try not to touch anything but I have to touch the handle of the scrub dispenser.  There’s no sanitizer nearby; it’s been empty for days.  I assume it gets filled but its always empty anyhow.  I use the plastic bag my masks came in to open the dispenser door, grab my scrubs and head up.  I open doors and press elevator buttons with the same plastic bag.  Finally get to the call room, open one last door and go inside to change.  Plastic bag in the garbage.  Sanitize hands.  Clothes come off and go into cloth bag, trying to only let the outsides of fabric touch each other.  Scrubs go on, and it’s time to head to the OR.  Walk quickly.  Don’t touch anything.  Clean hands often.  Don’t scratch my nose.  Don’t adjust the hair cover.  Don’t touch the mask.  Don’t panic.  Nothing has gone wrong, yet, today.

The OR feels more normal.  Most of us are used to seeing each other in scrubs, masked and hair covered.  There’s a bravado here to which I am well accustomed.  Fear isn’t allowed in the operating room; fear begets mistakes.  But everything takes longer than it normally would.  The nurses have run out of goggles and the case is delayed.  Anesthesia is double masking, gowning, covering necks, in a new system that requires a buddy and signs up on the wall to remind everyone of the new sequence.  Everything pauses for 15 minutes to let the invisible droplets settle.  This is very hard for teams driven by efficiency; we grow uncomfortable staring at each other and making small talk.  Fear nibbles at the edges of our consciousness, reminding us why all of this is necessary.  The minutes tick by painfully.  But if it keeps my friends and colleagues safe it’s worth it, every single minute is worth it.  Reports of doctors and nurses dying in New York, Italy and Spain are not falling on deaf ears.  

Do we have enough personal protective equipment (PPE)?  The worry niggles at us all.  Should we be sterilizing masks, saving gowns?  Two weeks from now will we remember aghast how we threw disposables away?  There it is, the whisper hinting at the roar of the incoming tsunami, rolling inexorably in this direction.  Stop.  Look away.   Focus on this patient; hope and pray that the claims of sufficient PPE are backed with supplies those of us on the front lines don’t see.

Focus on the patient, do our job.  Be kind to each other.  Maybe a little kinder than usual.  Tempers are high.  Everyone is a little irritable.  It’s the fatigue, the worry.  We are all self aware.  We know this is only the beginning.  But we are all in this together, and together we can make it through.

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