As the level of coronavirus showing up in Ottawa’s wastewater continues its steady climb, one epidemiologist says public health officials need to beef up promotion of the importance of masking and three-dose vaccination.
Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, said the city doesn’t need to bring back more public health restrictions, but that certain “common-sense measures” need to be reconsidered.
“The biggest thing public health can do is to not allow the narrative that COVID is over to become dominant because COVID is not over, we still have work to do,” Deonandan said.
On Monday, Ottawa’s COVID-19 wastewater surveillance team reported the average level of coronavirus in the city’s wastewater had reached the same level as the peak of the first Omicron wave this past January.
Deonandan said the rise is neither a surprise given the recent lifting of public health restrictions nor a cause for panic.
‘Nobody here is panic mongering’
At this point in the pandemic he said people know how to protect themselves by wearing masks, improving ventilation in workplaces, and rolling up their sleeves for a third dose of the vaccine.
“Nobody here is panic mongering, or shouting doom from the rooftops,” Deonandan said.
“The important part here is the communications narrative, making sure that people understand that there are still some things they need to do to keep themselves and each other safe.”
The last time Ottawa saw similar levels of coronavirus in the city’s wastewater was back in January when tougher public health measures were already in place.
Dr. Doug Manuel, a physician and senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital, said he is watching the current rate of increase because it will help indicate the level of community immunity.
Models with a gradual slope suggest it will be a more modest wave than the city saw in January, he said.
“So we are paying attention to what we’re seeing in Europe and other places where it’s going up quite quickly,” he added.
Manuel did say Ottawa is seeing increased test positivity among youth and young adults, ranging in age from 15 to 25, a population that may be less likely to be hospitalized.
“It could be the people that are getting ill now are not the ones that are going to be affecting the vital services or being hospitalized a few weeks from now,” Manuel said, adding the city still hasn’t seen the full effects of restrictions lifting.
At the beginning of January, Ontario rolled back its reopening plan to allow the province to preserve hospital capacity as it accelerated booster dose rollout.
Currently 62 per cent of Ottawa residents age 12 and older, the groups eligible for three COVID-19 vaccine doses, have received all three. That’s about 54 per cent of the city’s total population.
Hospitalization rates stable
Despite the rise in wastewater indicators, hospitalization rates in Ottawa have remained fairly stable.
That includes at CHEO: on Sunday the children’s hospital’s dashboard showed four COVID admissions where the primary reason for the admissions was COVID-related.
Tammy DeGiovanni, the hospital’s senior vice-president of clinical services and chief nurse executive, said emergency volumes have been increasing over the month of February and through March, but that’s typical of the season.
She called it a “a regular emergency department” with a mix of injuries, as well as respiratory illnesses and lots of different reasons, and there is no “big theme.”
She also advocates for masking and vaccinations, but said she feels public health officials are also getting those messages out as best they can.
Choosing how to protect yourself
In a written statement, Ottawa Public Health said it will continue to monitor key COVID-19 indicators, including hospitalizations, and assess options should they start “trending upward in a concerning way.”
The health authority continues to encourage mask use as an additional layer of protection and recently launched a risk reduction webpage to help individuals and families assess their level of risk of severe outcomes.
“We are shifting to a space where individuals and their families must choose how to, rather than be mandated, to best protect themselves,” the statement said.
Witten by Robyn Miller