Meet the ‘disease detective’ who tracks COVID-19 cases in Langley and other Fraser Health jurisdictions

Dr. Aamir Bharmal heads the busiest contact tracing team in B.C.

Whenever someone tests positive for COVID-19, they are almost certainly not alone.

They may have unknowingly spread the virus to many others — and those people have to be contacted to make sure the virus doesn’t spread any further.

That’s where Dr. Aamir Bharmal, medical lead of the case and contact coordinating centre at Fraser Health Authority (FHA), and his team of contact tracers comes in.

Bharmal describes them as “disease detectives.”

Fraser Health, which administers health care services to more than 1.8 million people in Langley and other communities stretching from Burnaby to White Rock to Hope, has the busiest contact tracing team in the province, with roughly half of all COVID investigations.

It still isn’t as busy as they initially feared it might be, when the existing 14-person team of medical professionals, who tracked exposure to infectious diseases like measles and STIs, was expanded to 250 to prepare for the coronavirus back in March and April.

READ ALSO: VIDEO: Testing for COVID-19 in Langley runs seven days a week

“We had no sense of how many cases we could expect,” Bharmal explained, so FHA went with the worst case scenario.

Since that time, the number of tracers has dropped to 100, as some of the nurses, health inspectors and other health professional returned to their regular duties.

Contact tracers have to be “a good social workers and a good listener” Bharmal believes, because they are often the person who delivers the news of a positive test result to the person on the other end of the phone call.

They help those exposed to re-trace their movements, at times getting them to check their calendars or credit card receipts to see where and when they have have been.

Generally, people are contagious for about 48 hours before they show any symptoms, so that is where the tracing has to begin.

With the loosening of the lockdown creating more potential points of contact, numbers are beginning to show an “exponential” increase,” Bharmal reported.

“The complexity of contact tracing has increased.”

It makes the job considerable less of a challenge when people follow guidelines by leaving phone numbers and names at restaurants and other potential contact points.

“It certainly does help.”

Bharmal is looking at adding people to the contact tracing team to handle the increase, and he was pleased by the announcement on Wednesday, Aug. 12, that the provincial government was hiring 500 contact tracers.

“If we have a surge we can draw on them,” he said.

Premier John Horgan said the new contact tracers “will provide an extra layer of protection by jumping into action as soon as there is an outbreak, and will start their detective-style work to find out who may be infected in order to protect all British Columbians.”

READ ALSO: COVID-19 tracing app starts beta testing after three-week delay

Health minister Adrian Dix described contact tracing as “absolutely crucial when dealing with community outbreaks as we slowly and safely increase our contacts.”

Some of the new positions will also help to support public health services, such as providing education in communities, and possibly immunizing for influenza and other diseases. Reducing the number of people with the flu helps alleviate the burden on provincial laboratory testing infrastructure and protects acute-care capacity in B.C.’s hospitals as respiratory illness season approaches this fall.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer said the new contact tracers will work with existing public health teams to help track down those who may have been exposed and support people to self-isolate when necessary.

”This role becomes even more crucial to contain the spread as we continue to open up our schools, economy and social activities, and as we prepare for the upcoming cold and flu season this fall,” Henry said.

These positions will be temporary and will be recruited by the Provincial Health Services Authority and the regional health authorities and is intended to allow health authorities to increase their local pool of available public health professionals.

It’s expected the candidates will begin work in September 2020 and will be employed until the end of March 2021, with opportunity for extension if needed.

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