‘No lid on the pot anymore’: Sharp COVID-19 rise concerning health experts, leaders

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Just when you may have felt like the pandemic is over, data and health experts are here more than two years in to remind you: it’s not.

Coronavirus found in Ottawa’s wastewater — currently the most accurate way to measure the spread of COVID-19 — continues to climb and set more records each day, far exceeding the amount in January’s Omicron-driven wave.

Key numbers such as hospitalizations, test positivity and outbreaks have also been rising.

“There’s a bit of concern right now because the wave [is] higher than predicted,” said Earl Brown, a virology expert and professor at the University of Ottawa.

“The pandemic is definitely not over … The hope is that those infections won’t be too severe.”

Researchers measuring the average level of novel coronavirus in Ottawa’s wastewater, represented by the bold line, and the bars representing the daily level to both be the highest on record as of April 5. (613covid.ca)

Many health officials predicted increased transmission as restrictions were lifted in March and the Omicron BA.2 subvariant picked up speed.

The concern, experts said, would be whether booming COVID cases overwhelmed hospitals. It’s unclear if that will happen.

While hospitalization rates remain relatively low, they lag behind infection rates. Data throughout the pandemic suggests hospitalizations in Ottawa peak one week after wastewater levels peak — which has not happened yet.

“You don’t want to get to a point where you’ve got too many cases, can’t handle them and say, ‘Well, we wish we did something,'” Brown said.

Hard to translate wastewater level to case number

Tyson Graber, co-lead investigator of the COVID-19 wastewater project in Ottawa, said the record-setting amount of COVID in wastewater doesn’t necessarily mean there are more people infected.

It’s “really difficult to equate wastewater data to the number of cases because that equation changes or is expected to change between variants,” he said.

Still, the lack of public health restrictions coupled with rising levels of COVID is cause for concern, he said.

“I think there’s definite concern that it could go higher. There’s really no lid on the pot anymore.”

Graber said that even if it’s an overestimate, it’s better than underestimating the numbers.

WATCH | Wastewater’s relationship to hospitalizations:

Better immunity may mean less severe illness despite wastewater spike, researcher says

Tyson Graber, co-lead investigator on Ottawa’s coronavirus wastewater monitoring program, says existing immunity to COVID-19 may blunt the effects of a sixth wave, keeping hospitalization rates lower than in previous waves. 1:07

Local health leaders send message to residents

There were 23 Ottawa residents in local hospitals for treatment of active COVID-19 in Thursday’s Ottawa Public Health update, with a rise this week bringing this number back to what it was in mid-February.

Its count of all patients with COVID-19, regardless of where they live or whether COVID brought them to the hospital, has also risen.

That and the rising local test positivity rates for those still eligible for a PCR test worries hospital chiefs of staff and medical officers of health in Ottawa and its surrounding eastern Ontario health units.

They issued a joint news release Thursday encouraging people to do four things: get vaccinated with every dose they are eligible for, limit close contacts, wear a mask in indoor public spaces and stay home if sick.

Those actions will hopefully help stem the burden facing the health-care system during this wave, which Brown estimates is likely at least about two weeks away.

“Masking…decreases transmission,” said Brown. “Maybe you’re not going to have as many parties or large parties. Maybe put that off a little bit.”

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