Coronavirus: Ottawa Public Health asks U.K., South Africa travellers to present for testing

People wearing protective equipment check in at the international departures at Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Monday, December 14, 2020. International travellers will now have to pay for a COVID-19 test if required. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Ottawa Public Health is calling on any resident who might have travelled to the United Kingdom or South Africa over the holidays to present for a coronavirus test to help trace the possible spread of new variants of COVID-19.

Dr. Vera Etches said in a news conference Tuesday that the new variants emerging in other parts of the world, especially the faster-spreading variant first identified in the U.K., will affect Ottawa’s ability to flatten the city’s surging COVID-19 curve.

“It’s more transmissible. It would make bringing the virus levels down in our community even more difficult,” Etches said of the U.K. variant. OPH identified multiple cases of this new strain in Ottawa late last year.

Another variant, identified in South Africa, carries multiple genetic mutations, which some experts worry could make current vaccines less effective.

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Read more: What the COVID-19 variant from South Africa means for pandemic, vaccines

In an effort to gauge the full spread of these variants in Ottawa, OPH is asking any travellers who travelled to or through the U.K. or South Africa to present at an assessment centre for testing, even if asymptomatic. Close contacts of these travellers are also asked to get tested.

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While Ottawa’s COVID-19 numbers were trending well before the holidays, a spike in the early days of the new year has put the city “firmly in the red” on the province’s coronavirus framework.

The nation’s capital joined the rest of Ontario in a 28-day lockdown on Dec. 26, though Etches noted the city’s current COVID-19 spike would be a result of pre-holiday behaviours.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Canada ‘not expecting’ large numbers of cases related to COVID-19 variants, Tam says'
Coronavirus: Canada ‘not expecting’ large numbers of cases related to COVID-19 variants, Tam says

Ottawa has so far reported triple-digit increases in new virus cases every day in 2021, with 123 new cases added on Tuesday.

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The number of active cases of the virus in Ottawa rose to 843 on Tuesday, up from 783 the day before.

Two new coronavirus outbreaks were added to OPH’s COVID-19 dashboard on Tuesday, raising the total to 41.

There are currently 18 people with COVID-19 in Ottawa hospitals, seven of whom are in the intensive care unit. Etches said Tuesday the growth in hospitalizations is “unsustainable” and will rapidly approach the point at which elective surgeries might need to be cancelled if current trends continue.

Read more: COVID-19 variant may not be deadlier, but we shouldn’t dismiss it, experts say

If the provincewide lockdown does not bear fruit in stemming the spread of novel coronavirus locally, stronger measures will be needed, Etches said.

“Most of this transmission is still coming from the gatherings we have with friends, families, neighbours.”

She pointed, again, to the basics of transmission prevention: washing hands, staying home as much as possible, wearing a mask and physical distancing.

Etches also said workplaces are increasingly being identified as places of transmission. She highlighted lunchrooms as a specific site of risk, as co-workers can transmit the virus more easily if they are not distanced while eating with their masks off.

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Click to play video: 'U.K. goes into national lockdown, as COVID-19 variant continues spread'
U.K. goes into national lockdown, as COVID-19 variant continues spread

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