Ontario parents set up their own contact tracing systems

Omicron is everywhere and school is back. Government tracking systems cannot keep up. Some families could not bear to send their children to classrooms if they could no longer see the virus hiding there. So they banded together, formed back-channel groups, networked, crunched data into spreadsheets — turned into guerrilla contact-tracing units taking over public health.

Across Ontario, countless Whatsapp and Facebook groups have sprung up in recent days, self-contact parent tracing collections, as Ontario backed away from reporting COVID-19 outbreaks in the schools to families this month – opting instead for local public health units to only notify families when school absences reach 30%, and not necessarily because of COVID.

The efforts of these parent groups range from simple messages informing each other of their children’s symptoms, to spreadsheets with rapid test results, to comprehensive data visualizations.

“When the news broke that the children were returning and there would be no contact tracing or reporting in the schools, I contacted as many parents in my children’s classes as I had contact details. “, said Laura. McIninch, who now runs a “makeshift” contact tracing Whatsapp group.

“I feel like as parents, whatever steps we can take to make school safer for kids, we want to take.”

While McIninch isn’t worried about her double-vaccinated children getting seriously ill, she does worry about the vulnerable people around them, like their baby cousin and grandparents. That’s why a school community network keeping up to date with any symptoms or close contacts is so crucial to her.

Even without her WhatsApp group, because her children are enrolled in Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) schools, McIninch is already better informed about the risk of infection than some parents.

Although the province is no longer obligated to publicly disclose cases in the school system, the board has opted to do so anyway through its COVID dashboard. All positive tests, PCR or rapid, reported to school principals will appear there.

“It raises a question: why does the council see this as important when the province does not? McIninch said.

Amelia Libertucci received a letter from her son’s York Region District School Board kindergarten on Thursday saying a member of her class had tested positive. But the fact that this case will not be reported to public health and that parents have to do contact tracing on their own, makes her worried.

“I’m incredibly frustrated, nervous, scared – I have so much anxiety about it,” she said. “We rely on parents to be the contact tracers. We do the public health work. It’s ridiculous.”

Libertucci filed the case information in a Google Form she found, created by “a group of affected people who would like to continue with contact tracing one way or another, because no one else is.” will do”.

“I feel completely left in the dark,” she said. “I’m grateful the school let us know, but that’s it. Public health does not deal with it. It’s really stressful to be in this position. We all have families, we don’t want to infect anyone. »

“If we want to open schools, they have to be safe,” Libertucci said. “And contact tracing is part of school safety.”

While some parents see their grassroots contact tracing as better than nothing, it’s not without its pitfalls. Larger groups only allow self-reporting, but smaller circles may rely more on hearsay – which in context could raise privacy concerns or empower to rumours. And lay contact tracing could make more mistakes and have less reliable information about what families want from public health units.

Ottawa has become the hub for parent-led contact tracing in the province thanks to the efforts of Christie Cowan, a nurse and mother of three, who started the Ottawa Schools & Daycare Contact Tracing Facebook group, which now has more than 7,500 members.

Cowan said she started the group last week because she “wasn’t comfortable not knowing if there was a case in my kids’ classes.” On Friday evening, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, one of the city’s four public boards, announced that it would create a voluntary parent COVID declaration form and COVID dashboard, like the TCDSB .

Knowing that her children have been affected by COVID immediately triggers lifestyle changes for her – she should limit her contact, especially her friends who have an immunocompromised child, and ask her parents to help her deal with the children while working outside the home.

“If we’re told about lice, it’s reasonable to also be told about COVID,” Cowan said. “I feel like the government doesn’t see the big picture – they say, ‘Well, COVID doesn’t affect children as much as it affects the elderly, immunocompromised or unvaccinated. But what if the children live with people in these high-risk categories? »

Inspired by Cowan’s group, Katya Duhamel created the Ottawa School and Daycare Tracker — the same concept as the Facebook group, but with data visualizations.

“A lot of parents were wondering what we were going to do when the reporting stopped,” she said. “I work in data, so I wanted a simple tool where anyone in Ottawa could share anonymously if they had a case of COVID.

“It’s very difficult to do a risk assessment for your family and your health if you don’t know what’s going on.”

Duhamel installed her tracker in just a few days and adds fixes and improvements when she can. If she can put this together on her own, she explained, the government should also have the resources and tools to do contact tracing.

“It’s hard for me to see it any other way that (the province) doesn’t want us to know or have all the information because those numbers would force some changes to happen in schools,” she said. .

Another spinoff of Cowan’s group has popped up in the Leeds and Grenville area of ​​Ontario – the Facebook group LGL Schools and Daycare Contact Tracing & Awareness.

Hendrik Pape, one of the four founders, said he now receives around 100 new membership applications every day.

“The concept is to do what the government has decided they no longer want to do for us,” he said. “Parents had to step in and say, ‘If you don’t do it, we will.’ ”

Ben Cohen is a reporter in Toronto for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn

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