The Chief Scientist of Canada is surprised that authorities have not been better prepared to face the second wave of the pandemic currently shaking Canada. And this, especially in terms of screening and contact tracing – two means of prevention that had yet been targeted as a priority months ago. On this subject, in an interview with The dutyMona Nemer finds it hard to understand why Quebec turned up its nose at the help of Statistics Canada operators that had been offered to it.
The Dre Nemer, who is responsible for advising the government of Justin Trudeau, does not know what has been missing in the preparations of provincial and local authorities since the spring. Perhaps more granular data is needed on the ground, at the places of contagion and those that are most problematic, she says.
“And we still have the same challenges we had in April, in May with screening,” laments the expert, who has a doctorate in chemistry and who completed postdoctoral training in molecular biology.
“It is well known that screening is the crux of the matter – that when you want to reopen the economy, you have to be able to screen quickly, to be able to find contacts quickly, to isolate people, so that it can continue to operate. However, when we see that the screening system is not working, if there have been adjustments, it is clear that these adjustments were insufficient. It’s a problem, “regrets the Dre Nemer.
The Quebec government, like that of Ontario, which also has the highest number of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, has repeatedly complained of a lack of resources to screen and contact tracing of people infected with the coronavirus. Screening clinics were plagued with huge queues. Others have stopped offering walk-ins. Contact tracing teams fail to call back sick people for days after their testing.
To meet these challenges, in May Ottawa offered assistance to provinces in tracing contacts through Statistics Canada telephone operators who could make up to 20,000 calls per day to relieve provincial authorities.. The duty revealed two weeks ago that the Quebec government took more than three months to respond to this federal offer, only to end up with a tiny fraction of the aid. In early October, Statistics Canada was making 1,000 calls per day in Quebec out of the 14,000 then made in the provinces of Quebec, Ontario and Alberta.
Quebec’s health ministry said on Tuesday it was still only asking for help from around 100 Statistics Canada officers in the field at this time.
The Quebec Minister of Health, Christian Dubé, for his part affirmed that the health system had managed to find 800 new people more through the platform Je Contribue, in addition to the 800 who had already been recruited in reinforcement this fall.
The Dre Nemer does not dare to pass judgment on Quebec’s choices, recognizing that it is not working within the system itself and that it therefore only has an external view of the situation.
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“But, one thing is certain, already in the spring we were talking about monitoring, about the need to increase capacity,” she observes. Either way, administering a screening test requires certain skills. But contact tracing is “not that complicated, you can train people easily,” notes the scientist.
“Quebec has taken the bull by the horns in terms of human resources [en recrutant par milliers] health workers and in CHSLDs, she recalls. I have no doubt that if there had been a similar effort on the plotting side, they would have been successful. “
And, for lack of being able to train enough reinforcements, the Quebec government could have availed itself of the help of Statistics Canada, according to the Dre Nemer. “As long as human resources are a bottleneck, it sure takes more. “
Not enough testing
Despite the efforts of the provinces to improve their screening capacities, the number of tests conducted in the country remains insufficient, according to the opinion of the chief scientist of the federal government.
Canada does about 70,000 to 80,000 tests a day these days, on average. In England, where the population is one and a half times the size of Canada, authorities perform 500,000 screening tests a day and hope to reach 100,000 tests.
The screening process on Canadian soil also takes several days to get an appointment. With the call back times, we reach five to seven days before notifying all patients. It is then necessary to warn those who have been in contact with them. “The ‘tracing’, after 48 hours, it is not worth much, explains the Dre Nemer. So imagine after a week it doesn’t work. All of this is data we don’t have, people who may be infected and continue to transmit the coronavirus before they know it. “
Still time to correct the situation
The Dre Nemer, however, remains optimistic that it is not too late to gain the upper hand. “It is not only not too late, but there is an urgent need to turn the tide,” she argues, on the eve of the onset of the cold winter months in which the coronavirus will continue to spread easily.
According to the scientist, if screening and contact tracing were more effective and faster, the country could face the rest of the pandemic without having to live in such severe confinement. Perhaps we could even go back to the way of life of the summer months when it was possible, following public health guidelines, to see relatives and for schools and businesses to open their doors without worry.
“You have to tell yourself that what we see now [en nombre de cas quotidiens], perhaps this is a warning of what could come. And we really need to stop this chain of transmission and this scale of infections as soon as possible. “