Lack of testing means COVID-19 levels in Ottawa ‘much beyond’ what’s reported: Dr. Etches

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, believes COVID-19 testing in the city is not catching all cases of the virus. File photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Ottawa’s top doctor says she’s convinced COVID-19 assessment centres are not catching a great deal of Omicron infections across the city as testing capacity is overwhelmed and vaccinations are prioritized.

Ottawa Public Health said Wednesday that the COVID-19 positivity rate in the city over the past week hit 10.5 per cent, up from 8.7 per cent in the previous period.

The local health unit meanwhile on Wednesday reported 387 new cases of the virus, nearing an all-time high. Known active cases in the city stand at 2,435.

But with testing capacity significantly constrained, Ottawa’s medical officer of health believes that’s likely not showing the full picture of COVID-19 locally.

“I have no doubt that we have widespread transmission of COVID in Ottawa, much beyond what we are detecting,” she told media in a briefing Wednesday afternoon.

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Her comments come amid new isolation guidance for residents in Ottawa this week. Anyone with a symptom of COVID-19 such as a runny nose, sore throat, cough or aching muscles is expected to assume they’ve contracted the virus and self-isolate, even if they’re unable to get a test.

Household contacts of that individual must also self-isolate for a period of 10 days.

Appointments at assessment centres are scarce in Ottawa and walk-in testing is being prioritized for essential workers such as hospital and long-term care staff, who often need urgent tests to know whether they can safely go into work. For everyone else, the assumption that it’s COVID-19 is enough to take steps to avoid transmission, Etches explained.

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“We don’t need the test to take the steps that will prevent ongoing transmission… What we’re seeing is it needs to be your household as well, because it is that transmissible,” she said.

“That’s a lot of isolation… but it will enable us to keep things manageable.”

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Etches said she there seems to be sufficient supply in PCR test kits themselves and lab capacity to process the tests, but the workflow is getting snagged when it comes to people to administer the tests and workers on the data entry side.

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Ontario Health is looking at ways to address the testing gaps in the province, including possibly calling in third-party labs to help offload the burden, Etches said.

On Monday, three community health centres in Ottawa paused their testing operations and shifted their resources to the vaccination and booster shot campaign.

While the lack of access to timely testing can be frustrating, Etches said Wednesday there’s a clear reason to prioritize vaccinations over tests, especially for vulnerable populations.

“It’s because the vaccination is what will save lives. It is important. If we have to choose between a test and a vaccine to an older adult, we want that older adult to have that vaccine as soon as possible,” she said.

“It doesn’t require a test to take the protective action. We can still protect people against COVID transmission by isolating when we’re sick, that’s why it would come as a secondary priority.”

There are currently six people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Ottawa, none of whom are in intensive care.

Etches said the rise of Omicron has happened very quickly in Ottawa — it was first detected in the wastewater locally on Dec. 12, despite some cases appearing before then — and that hospitalizations are likely to eventually catch up the more it spreads in the community.

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Older adults are at greater risk of hospitalization, but they are likely not the first to be infected with Omicron, which is seen largely in younger age groups today.

Etches warned that Omicron will reach that vulnerable population quickly if residents are not careful over the holidays, especially as it relates to intergenerational gatherings between family.


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