Ottawa

Limited COVID-19 data means unpredictable January, experts say

People should prepare for an unpredictable month as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 outpaces the ability of public health officials to test and report cases, but the turn of the calendar could signal better days ahead, experts say.

Expert sees 'light at the end of the tunnel' of COVID-19 pandemic thanks to boosters

Doug Manuel is a physician and senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and a professor at the University of Ottawa. (Submitted by Doug Manuel)

People should prepare for an unpredictable month as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 outpaces the ability of public health officials to test and report cases, but the turn of the calendar could signal better days ahead, experts say.

Ontario made significant testing changes at the end of December because of the surge in Omicron variant cases. Only high-risk individuals who are symptomatic or who are at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 can get a PCR test, while others should assume they have COVID if they have symptoms.

The lack of data will impact the decision making for public health officials and health measures may need to be adjusted rapidly, said Doug Manuel, a senior scientist with The Ottawa Hospital who tracks local COVID-19 numbers, in a discussion on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"We're just not able to have the level of surveillance that's ideal and so during January it's going to feel different, we're not going to have as much information as we've had in the past," said Manuel.

"We anticipate this might be the most difficult month, for many people, of the pandemic."

This new chapter of the pandemic is not like March 2020, despite the large-scale exhaustion and frustration, he added, as Manuel remains optimistic most will avoid severe illness with the increase in booster vaccinations.

"This is the first time I've felt that we're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."

Troy Day, a member of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, says the lack of clinical testing makes projecting the spread of the virus nearly impossible.

"This is lousy from an epidemiological standpoint, but I think it was also inevitable given the explosive growth of Omicron," said Day, who is also a mathematician at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

WATCH: Why wastewater data might soon be more important than COVID-19 case counts:

Why wastewater data might soon be more important than COVID-19 case counts

5 months ago
Duration 0:53
Tyson Graber, co-lead investigator on the COVID-19 wastewater project in Ottawa, says wastewater data may fill the gap in official case counts as the Omicron variant outpaces the ability of public health officials to test and report cases.

Wastewater testing carries more significance

Public health officials in Ottawa could lean on wastewater testing for the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community, but that isn't a perfect substitute. For example, you can't pinpoint demographics for cases or conduct contact tracing.

"It's really a complementary measure, to complement clinical testing, [but] clinical testing is still really the gold standard," said Tyson Graber, co-lead investigator on the wastewater project in Ottawa.

Graber said the wastewater could still mitigate some of the stress caused by missing case data so the city knows whether the amount of COVID-19 is increasing or decreasing in the community.

"The wastewater is really going to be a good indicator for, not just public health, but also the person on the street, the individual who needs to assess their risk," he said.

Tyson Graber is an associate research scientist and co-lead investigator on Ottawa's coronavirus wastewater monitoring program. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

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