COVID-19 wastewater data has offered clarity throughout the pandemic, providing glimpses into what cities and hospitals could be facing in the coming weeks. And it remains one of the only sources of timely information regarding the spread of the coronavirus in the province.
But the lead scientist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Water Security, which monitors the levels of virus RNA in the wastewater of three cities in the province, told Global News the information is not as helpful as it once was.
“What I used to be able to do was get on the (COVID-19) dashboard for the province and take those numbers off of there and put them into my calculations,” toxicologist John Giesy said.
“Well, I can’t do that anymore.”
Giesy said the numbers can still show trends and overall increases or decreases in the amount of COVID in cities. But without other figures to compare the wastewater data to, Giesy said it’s tougher to predict things like hospitalizations and the amount of new cases.
Giesy used to draw on the provincial government’s daily COVID-19 statistics. On Feb. 10 the province began providing weekly, rather than daily, updates with information from the previous week.
The latest wastewater numbers show the amount of COVID-19 in Saskatoon’s wastewater decreased 62.2 per cent over the week prior. In North Battleford it decreased by 31.3 per cent and in Prince Albert it decreased by 22.2 per cent, respectively.
Epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine said wastewater surveillance works best when combined with other source of information.
He also said the weekly data releases provide even less information because the province does much less testing than it used to. But what the latest government numbers do show is a burden for the healthcare system, Muhajarine said.
“Hospitalizations are still high. Disruptions due to COVID 19 (are) still present,” he said, saying people should not think the virus is any less present just because the provincial government removed all provincial health orders on Monday morning.
According to government information, February has been one of the deadliest months in the pandemic.
An image of the internal Saskatchewan Health Authority COVID-19 dashboard, which is only available to the SHA leadership team and that was leaked to Global News, shows 365 people were hospitalized because of the disease as of Monday morning. 64 of them were in intensive care units.
But most doctors don’t know that.
Dr. Alex Wong, an infectious disease physician, said he and colleagues don’t know how many people are in hospital across the province with the virus.
All he knows is many people are being admitted, though not as many in previous waves.
“There’s still a lot of people dying, which is incredibly tragic and unfortunate as well. So, we’ll wait to see the data dump from this Thursday to get a sense of where we’re at,” he said in an interview.
Wong did say the latest wastewater numbers, which show a decrease, come as a relief to himself and other health-care workers.
The rising hospitalizations over the previous weeks have left them exhausted, he told Global News.
He said he hoped to see the wastewater figures continue to show a downward trend, especially because the removal of all public health orders almost certainly means it will take longer for the numbers to come down, because it will still continue to spread.
“COVID-19, unfortunately, still remains a significant public health issue and public health threat,” he said.
“Everybody wants to go back to the way it was before COVID. And unfortunately, that just is not going to happen… It’s just the reality of the fact that it’s here and and it will continue to be here.”
Both Wong and Muhajarine said they’re mostly looking to Ontario and Quebec to know what will happen in Saskatchewan. They’re expecting the same pattern and hoping the numbers will go down.
But, as Muhajarine said, he doesn’t actually know how bad COVID is in the province.
“We don’t know for sure,” he said.