Ottawa

Women, health-care workers account for bulk of Ottawa's COVID-19 cases

As Ottawa nears 2,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, new open data released by Ottawa Public Health is helping form a picture of the disease's impact on the city, and revealing who's been most affected.

60% of city's nearly 2,000 cases are women, 28% are front-line workers

A customer picks up a fresh order from the Falafel Guys at the Ottawa Farmers' Market at Lansdowne Park on Sunday. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

As Ottawa nears 2,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, new open data released by Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is helping form a picture of the disease's impact on the city, and revealing who's been most affected.

While it's difficult to know how the virus is behaving right now — the stealthy nature of COVID-19 means it often goes undetected for up to two weeks — the data shows women and health-care workers are testing positive for it in disproportionately high numbers. 

According to OPH's latest epidemiology update, 60 per cent of confirmed cases are women. In real numbers that means 1,172 women have tested positive compared to 790 men in Ottawa.

As of Monday 1,962 people in Ottawa had tested positive and 244 have died from COVID-19.

 

Brent Moloughney, Ottawa's associate medical officer of health, said there are a few plausible explanations for that gender imbalance.

First, there are more female residents of nursing and retirement homes, where most of Ottawa's outbreaks have occurred. There's another imbalance, however: there are more men than women dying.

"For serious outcomes, what's been pretty clear in many places is that the mortality rate is higher in men," Moloughney noted.

 

The latest provincewide epidemiological report shows a markedly higher death rate among men in every age category except seniors 90 and older.

One leading theory is that men tend to develop a greater number of underlying health conditions as they age, including hypertension or respiratory illnesses as a result of smoking, that make them more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.

 

It's also possible men have more receptors for the virus to latch onto, Moloughney said, but it's not known yet whether that's due to chronic conditions or gender.

Women in health care 

While the ratio of female residents in nursing and retirement homes may partly explain why so many women are testing positive, the fact that most of the nurses and personal support workers in those facilities are also women is another key driver. 

According to OPH's latest epidemiological report on the respiratory illness, health-care workers make up roughly 28 per cent of all cases — more than one-quarter of people who have tested positive.

There are a couple reasons for that. On top of the heightened risk of exposure to the virus at work, Ontario's testing regime has until recently targeted health-care workers over other professions. While today anyone in Ottawa can get tested for COVID-19, this was note the case before.

 

"Most of the time during this outbreak there's been restrictions or limitations on who could get tested, and health-care workers were at the top of the list for priority. And then every day when they go to work they are being screened for any kind of symptoms," Moloughney said.

"It's not a surprise that health-care workers would be a significant proportion of cases that have been reported to date."

 

With broader access to testing and a more advanced digital record keeping, OPH now has the tools to pinpoint other industries, demographics or even neighbourhoods where the virus is heating up.

Researchers can now begin to look for trends emerging in other sectors — among retail employees or manufacturing workers, for example — Moloughney said. This is largely thanks to OPH transitioning at the end of April from paper-based record-keeping to a computer system to track the spread of COVID-19.

"We want to be able to leverage that to be able to search for patterns," he said. "Now, as the cases are decreasing, we want to look harder for where are the residual clusters or areas of transmission and target testing and investigation in those areas."

Brent Moloughney, Ottawa’s associate medical officer of health, says potential exposure to the virus coupled with increased access to testing means that about a quarter of Ottawa’s known COVID-19 cases involve health-care workers. 0:45

About the Author

Laura Glowacki is a reporter based in Ottawa. Previously, she worked as a reporter in Winnipeg and as an associate producer for CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC and reach her by email at laura.glowacki@cbc.ca.

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