Coronavirus: More than 27,000 Canadians register as volunteers to help provinces

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Why contact tracing is so important for tracking the coronavirus
WATCH: Why contact tracing is so important for tracking the coronavirus – Apr 1, 2020

Thousands of Canadians have answered the federal government’s call for volunteers to assist in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

Health Canada is building a database of specialized volunteers that provinces and territories can draw on to collect case data, help track down people who have been in contact with positive cases, as well as provide surge capacity at overwhelmed hospitals.

A spokesperson for the agency said the need for specific skills was identified through consultation with the provinces.

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“Other call-outs may be issued as jurisdictions identify new areas requiring assistance. As needs evolve, support in other areas requiring assistance will be provided,” the spokesperson said.

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Health Canada said as of Thursday, more than 27,600 Canadians have signed up. Applications launched on April 6 and will remain open until April 24.

The agency was unable to say how many of those registered would be helping with contact tracing specifically.

Contact tracing involves retracing the steps of a COVID-19 patient and tracking down anyone who may have had contact with them.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said the effort is vital in the fight against the virus, especially if cases continue to increase and those on the front line become overburdened.

She said the pool of volunteers will be particularly helpful in a “surge” situation.

“We’ll be monitoring and forecasting. So say, if there’s an increase in cases, then that means an increase in contacts. We’re there to support the surge if needed,” she said.

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She noted that some provinces and territories are already doing this and have created databases of their own.

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In Ontario, for example, the provincial government has created an online portal aimed at matching skilled front-line health-care workers with employers needing support during the pandemic. Retired or non-active health-care professionals, internationally educated health-care workers, volunteers with experience and medical students are all allowed to apply.

All the positions will be paid, the government said.

Tam said the federal database will be an added safety net.

“Some jurisdictions have already put in for that surge. For others, should they require it, we have that cadre of surge being pulled together as well.”

The tactic does, however, come with some privacy concerns, which Tam acknowledged. She said Canada is looking into a “range of applications” to assist — some for contact tracing and some focused on sending alerts to phones and devices.

“We’re pulling together a group amongst the provinces and territories to gauge interest — and I do believe there’s a significant amount of interest,” she said. “But there’s a lot of innovators, and we need to look at each of those innovators, in particular, how it pertains to things like privacy.”

In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney announced a number of new measures the province plans to introduce to contain the virus, including expanded tracing of infection sources.

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The plan, which includes using smartphone technology to enforce quarantines, has garnered some concern.

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Coronavirus outbreak: WHO searches for balance between privacy and protecting communities

During trying times, most Canadians would understand the rationale behind the move, Sharon Polsky, president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada, told the Canadian Press, but the execution needs to be transparent.

“They would be more inclined to trust these privacy-invasion measures if they had some certainty that these temporary measures would have a finite end,” she said.

— With files from the Canadian Press

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