Ottawa health unit backtracks after issuing misleading advice on COVID-19 immunity

Ottawa's public health agency is walking back some public health advice after it told recovered COVID-19 patients that they might be safe from reinfection for two years or more — information that goes against what federal health officials have cautioned through the entire COVID-19 pandemic. 

Ottawa top doctor says immunity information left 'wrong impression'

On Sunday, Ottawa Public Health updated parts of its public health advice — which contradicted statements from federal officials — about prolonged immunity to COVID-19. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

A local health agency in Canada has been issuing misleading public health advice by telling recovered COVID-19 patients they are likely safe from re-infection for two years or more — information that goes against what federal health officials have cautioned through the entire COVID-19 pandemic. 

After being contacted by CBC News Saturday, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) walked back its comments and said the information was outdated. The agency updated its messaging on both its website and Twitter account on Sunday. 

The health unit's original advice was based on science from the SARS outbreak in 2003. An epidemiologist says it's a mistake to use data based on a virus that acts very differently to make such concrete statements to the public. It could lead people to think they are immune from COVID-19 when they may not be, experts said.

"I feel like it's putting a false sense of security out to the community," said Ottawa resident Christine Seaby, whose parents both contracted COVID-19 after a trip to Spain earlier this year. "I think it's irresponsible, quite frankly."

Seaby's family was told directly by OPH that they didn't need to undergo further COVID-19 testing because her parents had already tested positive, and that it was very likely they wouldn't catch the virus twice. 

What information did the agency originally share?

As of Saturday, Ottawa Public Health's website said it was "a safe assumption" that previously infected residents would be safe from contracting COVID-19 again for anywhere from months to one to two years, "and perhaps longer." The information was pulled from the website late Saturday.

The agency linked that claim to immunity research conducted on survivors of the 2003 SARS epidemic, a disease OPH said was caused by "a very similar virus" to COVID-19. The public health unit also tweeted a similar message Friday to its 80,000 followers, but deleted the post after being contacted by CBC News. 

In a now-deleted tweet posted Friday, Ottawa Public Health gave misleading messaging that those who have recovered from COVID-19 are likely protected from being reinfected for a period of up to two years — or possibly longer. (Ottawa Public Health/Twitter)

The information is not in line with repeated statements from Canada's top doctor, who has said it's still not known how long any immunity to the novel coronavirus would last.

"We don't understand enough about the immune response to the virus — except that people do generate antibodies — and we have to see how those antibodies might work and how long they last for," said Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam during a May 6 news conference.

When asked for comment, the federal health agency reiterated that research on the subject was still underway, while Public Health Ontario confirmed the length of time someone is protected from reinfection is still unknown.

In response to CBC's inquiry, OPH also referred to recent research about other forms of coronavirus and their likelihood of reinfection — but according to the link the agency provided, the study has not been peer reviewed and is not meant to be used for public health advice. 

In its update Sunday, OPH's webpage now states it isn't known how long immunity lasts. But the agency opted to include the findings on reinfection from the recent study in its update, stating that the subject "has recently been reviewed by researchers."

Information left 'wrong impression', medical officer says

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, acknowledged Sunday that parts of the health unit's messaging was "leaving the wrong impression."

"I think part of the confusion is how it's been read," she said. "The information maybe gave the idea that there was more definitive immunity than there is."

But she largely defended her own advice to the public, telling CBC News that she has always said not enough is known about the virus and its immunity response — despite online content suggesting otherwise. 

"The message is that we don't have information on this virus. We have to continue to study it. We need to look at all the data that we have," she said. 

"We've had to act on information that's early, and then look for studies to confirm it and then follow up. Our interest is in providing information to the public when people want it, and we'll update it as we go."

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, said she regrets that the messaging caused confusion. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

OPH continues to draw link between SARS and COVID-19

OPH's original information also linked COVID-19 to the immunity response found in SARS survivors — something the agency left intact when it posted Sunday's update.

But University of Ottawa epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan says making those connections is "premature" and "a problem."

"They're different viruses. They behave differently. They look differently, and they manifest differently in the population," Deonandan said, adding that it's safer to rely on new research specifically about COVID-19.

While the two viruses have some similarities, they don't share everything in common, said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist and researcher at the Toronto General Hospital.

"I think it's challenging to extrapolate from one coronavirus and apply it to other coronaviruses," he said. 

OPH says it recognizes that COVID-19 "may act very differently" from SARS, but said it was only looking to other human coronaviruses "to help anticipate next steps."

Confusion could lead to continued spread, erode public trust

Bogoch said that the uncertainty around the virus could mean serious consequences for COVID-19's continued spread. 

"There's the possibility that some people may have a false sense of security, believe they're immune and get themselves into trouble if they were reinfected," Bogoch said.

Last month, Tam warned that because of such unknowns, people who might still be susceptible could "reignite another chain of transmission" of the virus. 

It's because of those consequences that advice that isn't transparently linked to its sources is worrisome, said Timothy Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta. 

Timothy Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, says officials must be transparent with the public about the state of the science and clearly communicate when it is evolving. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

But a situation like the one unfolding in Ottawa is understandable, he added, because the science is changing day by day.

"Public health authorities are struggling. You want to communicate to the public quickly. You want to give them useful information that is relevant to their questions, but at the same time the science is evolving and it's very difficult for them."

Ottawa family gets positive result again

Differing public health advice across multiple jurisdictions and organizations is hard on the public, Caulfield said.

"They may not trust public health agencies as much when they see those differences of opinions, different kinds of recommendations." 

Those considerations are what the Seaby family is now grappling with.

After several negative tests, Christine Seaby's father, Brian Seaby, tested positive again. 

Brian Seaby, right, tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving back in Canada from a trip to Spain earlier this year. After receiving multiple negative test results following his diagnosis, Seaby later tested positive, which doctors said could be a false result. (supplied )

Because he had been in contact with other family members — including his pregnant daughter — the family immediately wondered if everyone should undergo testing, even if his test turned out to be false. 

"[OPH] said it was not necessary. No one needed to be tested, because they felt that because Brian didn't have any symptoms ... that he wasn't contagious," said his wife, Carol Seaby. 

Some of her children underwent testing anyway for their own peace of mind.

"I just wish that we knew who we could listen to," she said.  "Maybe it's only going to be history that's going to provide ... the clinical evidence that we need."

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