VANCOUVER -- It's being described it as modernization of the process, but after weeks of the province's top doctor warning contact tracers are "at the brink" of not keeping up with infections, Fraser Health is now asking those diagnosed with COVID-19 to self-report.

The number of new cases in the area is outstripping its ability to stop further infections on some days.

The health authority is now encouraging those with positive COVID-19 test results to complete a contact tracing form on its website, which it describes as a more efficient way of stopping further infections in a region where infections are soaring well above the provincial average and the majority of new infections are 20- and 30-somethings.

"We've done quite a bit of work to streamline the process to be as effective and efficient as possible," said Fraser Health president and CEO Dr. Victoria Lee. "We heard from members of our community that using technology will make this process more convenient and easier for them, as well."

But that doesn't tell the whole story.

On Monday through Thursday of last week, the region saw between 651 and 675 new confirmed infections per day, with health officials today acknowledging "Fraser Health currently has the capacity to do 600 case investigations within 24 hours of receiving lab confirmation."

Cases in the region have been skyrocketing, and Dr. Bonnie Henry warned contact tracers were reaching their limits in mid-November.

"We are watching very carefully our ability to find people quickly and that has been challenged, particularly in the Lower Mainland health authorities, where we have had so many cases per day it's been a challenge for us to find people, to find their contact in a safe and quick way, being able to follow up and stop clusters before they grow into larger outbreaks," she said on Nov. 19.

Just last week, the head contact tracer told CTV News they'd had to scale back monitoring of most patients because they simply couldn't keep up with the volume of phone calls and that some of the work had been off-loaded from public health staff to recently-hired laypeople in order to keep up.

"No, not at all," replied Lee when CTV asked if the contact tracing system had collapsed in Fraser Health. "For the several weeks I think we have been really doing everything we can to ensure we hire and train as many people as possible. We have quickly now expanded our services and have over 600 people that are working in this area, so certainly in terms of the challenges we have seen with such rapid increase of cases we weren't able to follow up the cases as quickly and as promptly as we wanted to but we have been caught up now for several days and everybody is being notified within 24 hours once we get the results from the lab. We believe this form will give us additional capacity."

She pointed out that those who don't fill out the form will still be contacted and that their contact tracing team has staff who speak a variety of languages.

Lee also acknowledges that it can still be a long time from exposure to notification, but says it's a matter of logistics and timing that have little to do with Fraser Health's contact tracers.

Typical timeline:

  • Symptom onset – Most people get tested 24 to 48 hours after their symptoms begin.
  • Results – Results can take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours from the lab.
  • Notification – Patients get their results quicker than public health, which can take an extra 24 hours.
  • Back-timing – Contact tracers aren't just interested in who you were in contact with and where from the day symptoms started, they want to know up to two days prior because pre-symptomatic people are infectious before showing signs.

According to this information provided by Lee, in the best case scenario you could be notified of a possible exposure within two days, but it could easily be nine. The whole point of contact tracing is finding people who may not realize they've been exposed and could become sick, and having them self-isolate to avoid further exposure to others.