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Better data needed to assess severity of 6th COVID-19 wave, says B.C. group

Click to play video: '6th COVID-19 wave: Provinces diverge in measures, mandates' 6th COVID-19 wave: Provinces diverge in measures, mandates
Canada's sixth COVID-19 wave is underway, as infections and hospitalizations creep up. Eric Sorensen looks at how different provinces have different strategies on dealing with the new uptick, what Ontario's wastewater is revealing, and the urgent advice about vaccine doses – Apr 6, 2022

A British Columbia scientist says the public needs better access to COVID-19 data, as the province enters what could be a sixth wave of the pandemic.

In its latest report released Wednesday, the independent B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group said it believes B.C. is at the beginning of a second Omicron wave, driven by the more infectious BA.2 variant.

Sarah Otto, a mathematical biologist, UBC professor and modelling group member, said the severity of that wave, however, remains unclear due to uncertainty on multiple fronts, including reliable data.

Read more: Vaccine card: B.C.’s last major COVID-19 measure lifted

“I don’t think that modelers have been in this position yet in this pandemic, that we have so little to go on to make accurate predictions into the future,” Otto said.

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“The only thing I can say for sure is how fast BA.2 is spreading. It’s over 70 per cent now in B.C. and that is well predicted. But I can’t tell you if our second (Omicron) wave is going to be smaller than the first wave, the same or taller than the first wave, and that’s true around the whole country.”

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Otto said major unanswered questions include how many people were actually infected with Omicron during its first wave, how long their immunity will last, how much transmission will increase now that B.C. has relaxed restrictions and the effects of waning vaccine immunity.

That last question, she said, could play the largest role in how the province’s hospitals are affected in this wave, given that people aged 70 and over — who are already at the highest risk from COVID-19 — were the first to be boosted, and thus will be the first to see vaccine immunity wane.

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Read more: B.C. moves to weekly ‘surveillance’ approach to COVID-19 data reporting

Earlier this week, the province announced fourth doses of vaccine would be available to people deemed clinically extremely vulnerable, or who are over the age of 70, six months after their third dose.

Otto said the other major concern for experts tracking the virus was the lack of reliable data.

With access to PCR testing now severely restricted, other metrics including hospitalization have become more important. Last week, B.C. moved to provide data on hospital admissions and a total count on hospitalizations weekly.

Otto said what has been made publicly available in B.C. lags behind other Canadian jurisdictions, and is not sufficient to do proper statistical analysis.

“One of the questions really has been how many cases are out there, how bad are case numbers,” Otto said, noting modelers have been relying on wastewater data to get an idea of the situation.

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Read more: COVID-19 sixth wave: 5 ways Canadians can reduce and evaluate health risks

“You can learn a lot from that wastewater. And one the questions is really to try and tie it to local circumstances to get a sense of here’s how closely it ties to hospitalization rates and COVID cases in the community,” she said.

“But without access to the raw data, it’s hard to do.”

On Friday, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix defended the province’s approach to public COVID-19 data, saying the new weekly reports were “if anything, more comprehensive than they were before.”

“It’s important information to all of us,” Dix said.

“You will see week onto week where we are in terms of hospitalization, many other measures of COVID-19.”

Dix said the risk remained most severe for people who were immunocompromised or elderly, which is why they are being prioritized for access to booster shots.

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