Toronto Public Health is increasing and targeting its contact tracing efforts to focus on new variants of COVID-19 in an attempt to get ahead of a possible third wave of the virus.
The agency has been using most of its contact tracing resources to concentrate on outbreaks, such as super-spreader events. But with new, more contagious and possibly more harmful variants circulating, health investigators are now aggressively focusing on them.
“We’re in the fourth quarter, the vaccines are on the way, but if these variants get out of hand and if they take control and we see exponential growth, we’re going to be right back into a third wave,” public health chair Coun. Joe Cressy said.
“There is a window right now before vaccines are out en masse where we have a chance to stop these other variants before it really takes hold.”
Those who have screened positive for a case of a new “variant of concern” then can be quickly isolated and the potential health risks of their situation examined.
Public health agency staff will then reach out to those in close contact with the person. If they have symptoms of COVID-19 they will automatically be presumed to have one of the new variants. Those who don’t live in Toronto will be referred to their own local health unit.
Cressy said the agency has boosted its contact tracing staff from 50 to more than 1,000 full time people since the start of the pandemic and health investigators have effectively become “variant hunters.”
“Every time we have a potential variant case that is prioritized and the investigators go hard to work to identify all, not only close but low-risk contacts,” Cressy said.
He said the new variants mean “in many ways we’re in a new pandemic.”
Research has shown variants such as the B.1.1.7 strain, which first emerged in the United Kingdom, increase the chance of hospitalization and death, according to Toronto Public Health.
New strains have been reported to spread more easily and could risk the efficacy of vaccines.
The province announced Friday it is going to continue lockdown measures in Toronto and the Peel region until March 9 when lockdown and stay-at-home orders will be reviewed again.
Officials said keeping the measures in place will also help Toronto avoid a third wave of the virus.
After reduced infections, a number of areas on Ontario are loosening lockdown restrictions.
But Dr. Eileen de Villa, the public health chief for the city, said Toronto needs more time to understand the impact of children returning to school and the new variants spreading throughout the public.
“I’ve never been more concerned about the threat of COVID-19 to your health as I am now,” de Villa said earlier this week.
Since the pandemic began, Toronto has recorded nearly 95,000 cases of the virus. On Saturday, 68 of them had been confirmed as variants of concern, according to the agency. The city also reported Saturday that seven more residents had died for 2,604 COVID-19 deaths.
Cressy said the last year has exhausted Toronto residents but added people are still doing their part to curb the spread of COVID. He said governments need to do theirs as well, including continuing to scale up contact tracing.
With a file from David Rider