COVID-19 trending up in Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie wastewater testing
Viral load in Greater Sudbury higher now than at same time last year, says researcher
The presence of COVID-19 is trending up in wastewater samples from the northern Ontario cities of Greater Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie. But levels have remained relatively stable in other communities, according to scientists with the Health Sciences North Research Institute.
Gustavo Ybazeta, a researcher with the institute, said the viral load of COVID-19 in wastewater from both cities is higher now than it was at the same time last year.
Ybazeta said his team is measuring 17.8 copies of the virus per mililitre of wastewater in Greater Sudbury, compared to eight to 10 copies per mililitre the previous week.
He said his team is also tracking new Omicron subvariants that could eventually become the dominant strains.
"At this moment, there are multiple variants that are trying to be the one to replace BA.5 at this moment. And we're following that," he said.
One concern, he said, is that new subvariants could be better at evading the immune system and could reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.
"It's like the virus is testing our defences," Ybazeta said.
"Now more than ever we need to avoid transmission. Because every time the virus replicates it will produce new variants and test our immunological system. And it needs only one in order to surpass our defences."
Ybazeta said he expects there to be more COVID-19 cases in northeastern Ontario as the weather gets colder. He added the viral load in some communities is higher now than it was at the same time last year.
That higher viral load has already meant the hospitals in Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie have seen more patients admitted due to COVID-19.
Impact on northern hospitals
On Oct. 19, Health Sciences North president and CEO Dominic Giroux told CBC the hospital was close to the peak it reached in February for COVID-19 patients.
"For many segments of society, there's a return to a sense of normalcy to before the pandemic. Students are back to school, staff are returning to work in person, people are no longer wearing masks and so forth," Giroux said.
"But for our teams, the pandemic continues. They haven't had a break in two and a half years and many colleagues are telling me pretty much every week, every day, that right now is the most challenging time in their career because there's accumulated fatigue."
The hospital in Sault Ste. Marie has also seen an increase in patients and staff presenting to the emergency department with COVID-19, said Sue Roger, the hospital's vice-president of clinical operations and chief nursing executive.
Roger said the hospital had a peak of 42 patients admitted due to COVID-19 last week, but that levelled off to 28 patients by Friday.
"However, we did have a jump that was concerning and put us, frankly, in the hospital, into an outbreak situation in four of our inpatient units," Roger said.
As with other hospitals in the province, COVID-19 has impacted staffing levels at the Sault Area Hospital.
Roger said every department has faced "staffing challenges" and in some cases, personal support workers were brought in to help out with the extra workload.
The combination of staffing shortages and more COVID-19 cases has led to longer emergency department wait times.
"Our wait times are high. I won't gloss over that in any way, shape or form," Roger said.
She said a big concern for the hospital is high ambulance offload time — the time it takes for a patient who has arrived at the emergency department from an ambulance to receive care from a nurse or physician.
"We are working with our emergency services partners in the community to come up with new tactics to support ambulances once they arrive and receive those patients," Roger said.