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Health Minister Randy Delorey says federal money available to provinces under the Safe Restart program will be used to beef up contact tracing as public schools and universities begin re-opening in the next two weeks.
As more people begin to gather and share space indoors, the capacity of Public Health to quickly determine and find those who may have been “close contacts” — defined as people who spent more than 15 minutes within six feet or two metres of someone who tested positive for COVID — will be critical to containing COVID-19 and stopping its spread. Over the last few days, the volume of tests processed by the lab in Halifax has increased to nearly 1,000 a day.
The federal Safe Restart money has not yet begun to flow but Nova Scotia expects to receive in the range of $250 million. Meanwhile, Nova Scotia Health (formerly the Nova Scotia Health Authority) and Public Health are in the process of ramping up staffing to carry out more efficient contact tracing in preparation for flu season and a potential second wave of COVID.
Although no one would provide an actual estimate for how many staff Public Health will have on the ground by September 8 to do contact tracing and follow up, here is the information received from Public Health senior communications officer Lesley Mulcahy:
• Nova Scotia Health Authority and Department of Health have posted ads for public health nurses and administrative supports needed to enhance our existing capacity for contact tracing. These supports will be hired throughout the province.
• Our aim is to add more than 100 staff to the team, and this number may fluctuate depending on need, applicant pool, and onset of the second wave. We have streamlined the interviewing and hiring process so that we can start onboarding and training people asap, in the next few weeks.
• In the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, our Public Health program mobilized human resources quickly and efficiently to contain COVID-19. Specifically:
— At the peak of first wave in May 2020, Public Health mobilized more than 370 staff (which is four-times its typical Health Protection workforce) to work focused on COVID-19 case investigation, contact tracing, daily monitoring, calling to report negative lab tests and homelessness support to contain COVID-19.
— Public Health has completed additional staff training during the summer in preparation for a second wave of COVID-19. This includes more than 180 Public Health nurses receiving additional COVID-19 related content training and training on our public health computerized information system, Panorama, for 154 Public Health nurses.
Mulcahy added that “Public Health continues to prepare for a second wave of COVID-19 and has developed a timely and efficient process to mobilize and respond as the situation with COVID-19 develops.”
COVID exposure app
Another tool developed by Health Canada is a free COVID exposure app for cellphones that will alert the wearer if a “close contact” has tested positive for COVID. The Alert reminds you to watch for symptoms and get a test. You can download it easily here.
Smart phones purchased in the past five years are equipped to track our proximity to one another (Bluetooth enabled) and communicate by constantly sending codes among phones. People in Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador are already using the app and will receive an alert on their phone if a close contact tests positive for the virus. With schools and universities on the cusp of opening here, Health Minister Delorey was asked when the Health Canada App will be activated for citizens in Nova Scotia.
“Anyone can go out and download the app today,” he replied. “The piece of work that is outstanding is the process within our Public Health division for how a code has to be provided by Public Health to an individual who has tested positive. The individual then loads that code into their phone. That work is well underway by Public Health and we expect to make an announcement in the not too distant future.”
Support for nursing homes
The federal Safe Restart program also has $700 million to share with provinces to hire more staff for nursing homes and improve infection prevention and control. Delorey indicated Nova Scotia would be applying for some of that money to improve infection prevention based on a report expected this month from a group of specialists the Province asked to visit all 132 long-term care facilities this summer.
Delorey was far less clear about whether the province would access Safe Restart funds to find more places to house elderly or hire more staff so nursing homes can schedule more visits between families and residents.
Families have been complaining publicly they are unable to visit loved ones as often as before the lockdown. The Nova Scotia Nursing Homes Association has spoken out and defended nursing homes that are only allowing one family visit per week. The NSNHA says the additional masking and cleaning protocols associated with COVID mean homes often do not have enough people to arrange and facilitate more frequent family residents.
In response to these concerns increasingly being voiced by families who say residents are becoming prisoners in their own homes, Delorey did not say he would apply for federal funds to increase staffing. Here’s the description of one of the priorities in the Backgrounder to Safe Restart issued last July by the federal government:
Canadians receiving long-term care, home care, and palliative care are at an increased risk of more severe cases of COVID-19. As the economy restarts, it is important to have continued protections and supports in place for seniors, and provide health and social supports to other vulnerable populations. The Government of Canada will provide $740 million to support one-time costs over the next six to eight months for measures to control and prevent infections. This could include addressing staffing issues, in long-term care, home care, and palliative care facilities and services. Funding can also be used to support other vulnerable populations.
Delorey noted that the Health Department had created a new classification of employee last fall that permitted nursing homes to hire “assistants” to help caregivers take residents for walks, escort them to meals, and make Facetime calls to family members. The Health Minister said the budget update provided by Finance Minister Casey late in July indicated the Health Department had contributed additional millions of dollars for extra staffing at nursing homes during the COVID outbreak in the spring.
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