Variants of concern increasing exponentially, Ottawa scientist says

Variants of concern are spreading at an exponential rate in Ottawa and a senior scientist says it will likely be mere weeks before they make up the vast majority of new COVID-19 cases.

Winter lockdown slowed spread of variants, but they're now taking over

Virus variants spread quickly after too-short winter lockdown, scientist says

2 years ago
Duration 1:18
Doug Manuel, senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital, says a longer shutdown over the winter months would have slowed the spread of virus variants, which are now predominant among Ottawa’s confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Variants of concern are spreading at an exponential rate in Ottawa and a senior scientist says it will likely be mere weeks before they make up the vast majority of new COVID-19 cases.

As of Tuesday, there were 610 suspected and confirmed variants of concern reported by Ottawa Public Health (OPH).

In the last two weeks of March, between 25 and 37 per cent of all new COVID-19 cases involved variants of concern, but wastewater information indicates they make up around 50 to 60 per cent of the viral load, according to Doug Manuel, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital.

And that number is only going to go up.

Across Ontario, variants make up approximately half of all new COVID-19 cases, which is expected to rise to 90 per cent "in a matter of weeks," and already make up 90 per cent of cases in some parts of southern Ontario, Manuel said.

"[Variants are] coming in full force now," he said.

Variants of concern are identified by their increased transmissibility, virulence, or immune evasion — allowing people to become reinfected more easily or limiting the effectiveness of vaccines.

The B117 variant, first identified in the U.K., meets the first two of those criteria. But Manuel said it's also only a matter of time before another one appears that meets the third criteria.

Ottawa's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches has warned the city is losing the race against variants and younger people are ending up in hospital.

As older residents and those in long-term care and retirement homes are vaccinated, fewer are ending up in hospital, but younger people are replacing them in those hospital beds.

Since the B117, especially, is more transmissible and causes more severe infection, it's spreading more easily, especially in younger people and Manuel said whole families are also contracting the illness.

A close up of a person's arm, in a yellow sleeve with a blue latex glove, touching the chest of someone lying on a hospital bed.
A nurse tends to a patient suspected of having COVID-19 in the intensive care unit at a Toronto hospital. Ottawa's hospitalization rate has increased rapidly in the past few weeks. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"As soon as someone in the family has COVID, all those folks in the household are really very high risk of developing COVID and we're seeing that. We're seeing entire families go into hospital."

Right now, nearly 50 per cent of people in ICUs across Ontario are under age 60, a dramatic shift from the first two waves, said Manuel. And Ottawa's hospitalizations are comparable to the provincial average.

"Unfortunately people might have a false idea we've protected enough of our older adults that we don't need to worry about them getting severe disease," Etches told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Tuesday.

"But our ICU occupancy is growing, with people over 60 and with people under 60. So, we just don't have enough protection from the virus yet to let our guard down."

Outdoors doesn't make you immune

According to OPH, between March 22 and April 5, only 23 per cent of cases were linked to a close contact, while 11 per cent had no known link, and 58 per cent had no information available. Fewer than eight per cent of cases were linked to travel or an outbreak.

Part of the problem with variants of concern is that some people may assume getting together outdoors makes them immune from contracting the illness even if they're not spending that time two metres apart.

People soak in the sun on Major's Hill Park in Ottawa during the COVID-19 pandemic on Saturday. (Mathieu Theriault/CBC)

Etches said there have been "a large number" of people testing positive after dining together inside restaurants or on patios a couple of weeks ago when that was still allowed, or playing sports — even outdoors — along with having bonfires or barbecues together with people not in their household.

"Most people I see chatting outside with neighbours are not two metres apart, they're one metre apart," she said. "If your mouth is right beside somebody else's mouth, they may ... breathe in COVID if you have it."

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