How long is too long to wait for contact tracers to get in touch?

© Provided by ABC News NSW Health said it is still committed to contact tracing. (ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

I’m writing this at my dining room table, as my husband reads our little boy Remy a story in bed.

It’s early afternoon and we’re both hoping our three-year-old toddler will fall asleep for an hour or so, so we can get some solid work done.

We’re in isolation for the next week, after a COVID case at Remy’s daycare. The three of us have already spent a few days within the confines of our apartment, and while so far we’ve all tested negative to the virus, the thought of staying indoors for another week is a little daunting.

We’re one of tens of thousands of people who are under isolation orders in New South Wales. But the time it took for us to be notified that Remy was a close contact reveals just how behind the contact tracers are in reaching those who could be infectious.

Slow to respond

It was last Thursday, September 16, when I got the call from his daycare asking me to come and pick him up urgently.

The father of one of the children who attends the same daycare had tested positive to COVID-19.

The dad hadn’t visited the centre, but his child and wife had. Sure enough, over the weekend we were informed that the young child had also contracted the virus.

I had assumed that contact tracers would be in touch as soon as the child’s COVID-positive status was discovered. After all, the child and my son had been in the same daycare rooms together, eating from the same tables, playing in the same sandpit.

We chose to go into self-isolation, but it wasn’t until three days later that we finally heard from NSW Health and were officially told that Remy was a close contact and to isolate.

Peggy Greenwood runs my son’s daycare and said she was bombarded with calls from frightened and confused parents.

She said she was given no guidance from Health authorities as to what to do.

“It’s very stressful,” she told me.

“It’s hard to support families when I don’t even have the answers myself.

“You have parents who are worried, and I totally understand why they’re worried.

“They’re concerned also because some of them might be essential workers, so if they’re going into the workforce they’re not sure if they’re close contacts, casual contacts, or if they’re meant to be self-isolating or just self-isolating until they get a negative result.

“Everyone’s in limbo at the moment, just waiting.”

The waiting continued until Wednesday, more than a week after my son’s last exposure to the COVID-positive child.

It was only then that me and the 40 other affected families were finally informed by NSW Health that our children had been deemed close contacts and would need to go into isolation.

So that’s a full week that potentially infectious children and their families were able to be out and about in the community.

Gold standard?

At the start of the current outbreak in New South Wales, Prime Minister Scott Morrison praised the state as having the best contact tracers in the world.

“New South Wales, I have no doubt, has the gold standard contact tracing system, not just in Australia, but I think in the world.

“That’s how good I think they are,” he told Sky News back in June.

But it’s clear the system hasn’t kept pace with the Delta strain, according to data journalist Juliette O’Brien, who’s been tracking the COVID outbreak nationally.

“The question of whether contact tracing in NSW is functioning effectively has really been asked since the beginning of this outbreak — right from the beginning we’ve started to see signs of strain.

“It was pretty clear that as fast as NSW contact tracers were, Delta seems to have moved faster.”

She said that even when the numbers were much smaller than the daily figures we’re seeing now, many cases weren’t being linked to known outbreaks.

“That was quite unusual for the so-called gold standard NSW contact tracing,” she said.

“Right now, there are more than 27,000 cases under investigation in NSW. We have had just over 41,000 cases in this outbreak, so that’s two-thirds that have not been linked.”

Ms O’Brien said it’s crucial contract tracers keep up, even as more people get vaccinated and the state opens back up.

“Part of the national plan under the Doherty Report relies on optimal TTIQ: test, trace, isolate and quarantine.

“So, what we are supposed to have is optimal TTIQ, public health measures and vaccination.”

Walking away from contact tracing?

Professor Mary-Louise McLaws is an expert in infectious disease control at the University of New South Wales, and the member of a World Health Organisation COVID infection prevention and control group.

She believes NSW Health won’t be able to rely on contact tracing because the numbers are simply too large to keep up with.

“I think they’re going to be more inclined to only do contact tracing for vulnerable groups such as residential aged care and hospitals,” she said.

“When you’re getting over 1,000 cases a day, there is no way you can find them all.”

She said as the state and the country start to open up, more cases will emerge through travellers and vaccinated people whose immunity is waning, which will make it even harder for contact tracers.

“It is unlikely that any department of health could keep up with a high level of circulating virus, even with a high level of vaccination, because there will be circulating virus.”

NSW Health maintains it’s still committed to contact tracing.

“There are currently more than 1,000 staff working to assist COVID-19 contact tracing,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

“NSW Health continues to expand capacity to meet the increasingly high demand.”

“We continue to be deeply appreciative of the co-operation of the community in our contact tracing efforts, particularly during this challenging time.”

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