Ottawa

Latest provincial COVID-19 update shows good news, old news for Ottawa

The latest data on COVID-19 trends in Ontario shows Ottawa's rate of infection has plunged since mid-October, which is good news. Trends also show that restaurants and bars account for just two per cent of all outbreaks in this city, but that might not be the good news some were hoping for.

3 restaurant outbreaks among staff members in early October now resolved: OPH

Just two weeks ago, Ottawa had the highest rate in Ontario — even higher than Toronto — with 75 cases per 100,000 residents. But we appeared to heed public health officials' pleas to renew our vigilance against COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The latest data on COVID-19 trends in Ontario shows good news and, well, old news for Ottawa.

The good news is that Ottawa's per capita rate of COVID-19 cases is on the way down.

Just two weeks ago, Ottawa had the highest rate in Ontario — even higher than Toronto — with 75 cases per 100,000 residents. But we appeared to heed public health officials' pleas to renew our vigilance against COVID-19, because as of Oct. 24., that number had plunged to about 47.

The other statistic that is sure to grab some attention is a comparison of outbreaks in four of the hot spots in Ontario — Ottawa, Toronto, Peel and York region. The graph shows that restaurants and bars account for just two per cent of COVID-19 outbreaks in this city between Aug. 1 and Oct. 24. Toronto restaurants and bars made up 14% of its outbreaks over this same period.

Data shows that COVID-19 cases in Ottawa is coming down. ( Science Advisory and Modelling Consensus Tables)

Those who've been skeptical of Premier Doug Ford's decision to temporarily shut down indoor drinking and dining at restaurants and bars three weeks ago and have demanded to see proof that the coronavirus is spread in these locations, may feel vindicated by this latest data.

But it's not the smoking-gun evidence that some may be hoping for.

The Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table — sometimes known as the "Science Table" — is a group of epidemiologists, infectious disease and public health experts that provides data, modelling and trends to help inform the Ontario government's response to the pandemic. The group doesn't make policy recommendations, and it releases a public report every week or two, including one on Thursday afternoon.

But outbreaks should not be confused with the number of cases of COVID-19, said Dr. Doug Manuel, an epidemiologist Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and a member of the Science Table.

"I don't rely on these numbers for knowing how many cases there are in restaurants or businesses," he said.

An outbreak is declared when contact tracers can be reasonably sure that the coronavirus was transmitted from one person to another in a specific setting. (In a child-care centre, a single positive case is enough for public health to declare an outbreak.)

A comparison of COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario municipalities from Aug. 1 to Oct. 24, 2020. ( Science Advisory and Modelling Consensus Tables)

It's a lot easier to detect an outbreak in a school or retirement home, when it's known who the infected person's close contacts have been and they can be tested if necessary. 

The fact is, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) cannot determine where almost half the people diagnosed with COVID-19 contracted the virus. (In Toronto, 65 per cent of cases are from unknown sources.)

When someone who's tested positive is asked where they've been over the past two weeks, many can't remember every spot, or some may be embarrassed to admit they broke the rules, or they've had so many close contacts with anonymous people that public health officials can't pinpoint the place of transmission, said Manuel. 

Doug Manuel is a physician and senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, and a member of the province's expert panel advising the Ontario government on the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Doug Manuel)

For example, OPH is aware of people who have tested positive who've been to gyms or exercise classes, but none that have led to an outbreak.

This is despite the data released by the Science Table that shows nine outbreaks in "gyms and sports" in Ottawa. Those outbreaks were associated with both adult and children's team sports.

The information on the near non-existent numbers of outbreaks in restaurants is not new.

Until last week, we've been reporting there were none. However, OPH has since confirmed that there were three restaurant outbreaks among staff members in early October, which are now resolved. (They had been included in total for outbreaks in workplaces.)

Ottawa's medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said earlier this month that just because she hadn't declared an outbreak in a restaurant or bar that transmission of COVID-19 wasn't occurring. Data shows areas where people aren't keeping two metres apart and take off their masks are riskier. 

That's why Etches supported the plan for the 28-day move back to a modified Stage 2 for Ottawa.

That runs out in a week, and she hasn't said yet what she'll recommend the province do, although she has indicated she's looking for ways to keep as many businesses open as possible.

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