Epidemiologist warns of 'serious situation' by fall if COVID infections aren't brought under control

As Ontario officially enters a seventh wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of Ottawa's own health experts say the city is "running blind" right into it.

Ottawa Public Health says city's wastewater levels are high and climbing

Pedestrians, including one wearing a mask, walk through the ByWard Market. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

As Ontario officially enters a seventh wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of Ottawa's own health experts say the city is "running blind" right into it.

According to Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's chief medical officer, the BA.5 subvariant has been rising slowly since early June but really started to "take off" mid-month, becoming a dominant strain and now making up about 60 per cent of confirmed cases.

The levels of coronavirus in Ottawa's wastewater are "high and increasing," according to Ottawa Public Health (OPH). As of Sunday morning, there were 62 patients hospitalized with COVID — including patients initially admitted for other reasons. Six deaths were reported last week.

Despite possible immunity, the latest subvariants mean a higher chance of reinfection compared to previous variants from earlier this year, according to Raywat Deonandan, epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

Pair that with most pandemic restrictions being gone and the jump in COVID-19 infections is not surprising.

"I'm quite concerned that when the fall comes and the days get cooler, people go back inside and schools are open. If we haven't got this under control by then, we may be looking at a bit more serious situation," said Deonandan. 

No more widespread testing

If and when this current wave will peak is unclear, he said, because "we're not testing enough." 

Widespread testing ended about seven months ago, with OPH unable to keep up with demand, instead prioritizing vulnerable populations and essential workers. Even after case numbers fell, widespread testing never returned in Ottawa.

"We're in kind of a new territory because we are running blind," said Deonandan. "We haven't got the same number of eyes on the situation as we did in the past, because public health has other priorities."

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

Tyson Graber, the associate research scientist and co-lead investigator on Ottawa's coronavirus wastewater monitoring program, said Ottawa and the rest of the country will likely mirror Europe. The wastewater trends there show cases and hospitalizations are expected to peak within the next week "so hopefully we'll see that occur here in Ottawa as well."

While it's expected to see hospitalization rates increase with higher infection rates, "it won't be as bad as it has been in the past," Graber said.

OPH should step up messaging

Deonandan said it's also unlikely we'll see a return of pandemic restrictions because public tolerance "is very low" but added "frankly, we don't need to do that."

What needs to happen, he said, is for individuals to take measures to protect themselves from infection, including wearing a mask in high-risk settings and staying up to date on vaccinations.

Deonandan also said he wants to see the city step up its COVID-19 messaging. OPH has reduced updating its COVID-19 dashboard to twice a week. Ottawa's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches no longer does regular briefings.

"I am a bit disappointed that we seem to be embracing a narrative that all is fine when in fact there are many things we can and should be doing to make sure that transmission is low," he said.

In a statement, Dr. Brent Moloughney, Ottawa's deputy medical officer of health, said public health has been releasing a weekly COVID-19 "snapshot" on its website and over social media platforms to help residents understand the extent of infection in the community.

The snapshots are intended to "inform the assessment of their level of risk and how to apply various layers of protection."

Moloughney wrote that people are encouraged to continue wearing masks indoors and to stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations.

"The pandemic is not over and even if we are tired of COVID-19, COVID-19 is not tired of us. We need to remain conscious of the level of risk of COVID-19 in our community and in our lives," the statement read.


Nicole Williams is a journalist for CBC News based in Ottawa. She has also worked in P.E.I. and Toronto. She is part of the team that won a 2021 Canadian Association of Journalists national award for investigative journalism. Write in confidence to

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