Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Wednesday October 21, 2020
Lesson from the SpinCo outbreak: Province owns testing and tracing failure
When books are written telling the story of this pandemic — as they certainly will be — it may well be that Hamilton’s “superspreader” episode that began at the SpinCo cycling gym will get its own chapter.
The outbreak and its aftermath are a textbook example of why it is vital that testing and contact tracing be at optimal capacity during pandemics like this one. Every public health expert in Ontario has said that repeatedly. Even those of us who are not experts but read what experts say know it.
But knowing that and making it happen are different things apparently. At the time that the SpinCo outbreak was happening it was taking Hamiltonians up to eight days to get COVID test results. One gym client who spoke to Spectator journalist Katrina Clarke said she began to feel sick on Sept. 29 and got tested on Sept. 30. But she didn’t get her test results back until Oct. 5.
In that five-day period, 11 more classes were possibly exposed to the virus. The woman was self-isolating, but because she lives with her mother and sister, they got sick, too.
This is the cost of inadequate testing and contact-tracing capacity. Dr. Zain Chagla, infectious disease specialist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare, confirms this case highlights the need for rapid testing and tracing. Without it, public health officials are flying blind, or close to it. Or as Chagla puts it: “You want to fly into a storm with all your instruments on so you know how to react.”
If all this sounds familiar, it should. Media commentary here and across Ontario made the same observations during the first wave of COVID-19.
All the forensics on this superspreader event are not final, but at least one thing is clear. The gym may have done everything right. Local health officials may have made the right moves based on the data they had. But they could not move on data they didn’t have, and they didn’t have it because testing capacity issues slowed the results for so long, rendering effective contact tracing impossible.
Colin Furness, infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto confirms this, saying: “Contact tracing only really works if it’s incredibly timely.”
It wasn’t timely. As of Tuesday afternoon the result of that failure was 80 cases that sprung from the SpinCo outbreak. Radius restaurant on James Street South now has a six-person outbreak linked to SpinCo. Dozens of secondary households may have been exposed along with eight schools and child-care centres, six health-care facilities and 22 other workplaces.
How could this happen? How, when the Ontario government was warned countless times that a second wave was almost certainly coming?
How, when the government’s own health command table acknowledged the critical importance of being prepared after the first wave?
How, when the government committed to adequate testing, lab capacity and contact tracing resources?
Now, with the barn door open and the horse nowhere in sight, the province says it is “taking immediate action to expand case and contact management to help track, trace and isolate new cases of COVID-19.” That reassurance was contained in a email responding to questions from The Spectator.
Better late than never, right? Except the government had mountains of advice and evidence that could have prevented this outbreak from growing as far and fast as it has. For reasons only the government and its health brain trust know for sure, it didn’t heed the warnings and advice. And here we are. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)