Several prominent epidemiologists say B.C. is drastically undercounting variants of concern, which could lead to public complacency
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B.C. is drastically undercounting variants of concern, according to several prominent epidemiologists and data analysts, all of whom say these highly contagious strains now make up more than half of COVID-19 cases in the province.
Internal slides from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, leaked to Postmedia News, show that presumptive variant cases made up at least 40 per cent of all positive COVID-19 cases as of March 27. That’s double the estimate given by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on March 25, when she said about 20 per cent of positive COVID-19 cases were variants.
Neither of those figures take into account the rapid increase in variant cases over the Easter long weekend, when cases of the P.1 variant, first identified in Brazil, almost doubled. B.C. has confirmed 877 cases of the P.1 variant, the highest rate in Canada.
Henry on Tuesday said the B.1.1.7, the variant first identified in the U.K, currently makes up about a third of B.C.’s cases. The strain represents about 60 per cent of Ontario’s cases, but Henry expects B.C. will match that rate in about a month.
Sarah Otto, a University of B.C. biomathematics professor who has been running modelling to calculate the spread of COVID-19 and the variants, said her current modelling shows variants of concern now make up more than 50 per cent of positive COVID-19 cases.
“The publicly reported numbers are misleading the public into thinking that there aren’t that many active cases right now of the variants whereas really there are,” Otto said.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) only releases data on variants confirmed by genome sequencing. Variants of concern are confirmed using two types of tests. About 90 per cent of all positive COVID-19 cases are run through a PCR screening test. That test can detect variants but doesn’t specify which variant. That is confirmed through whole genome sequencing, a more complex process that could take several days or up to a week. The BCCDC hasn’t revealed what percentage of presumptive variant cases identified through PCR tests are analyzed by genome sequencing.
Otto said the public should be given the most up-to-date number of active variant cases confirmed through PCR screening, which is common in other provinces such as Ontario. There have been concerns around false positives, Otto said, but this is estimated to be around one per cent.
Henry said Tuesday that “all of the (cases) that are positive right now on the screening tests are going through whole genome sequencing.” However, it’s unclear if that’s always been the case. She also acknowledged there’s a time delay before genome sequencing confirms the presence of a specific variant.
Henry said given the prevalence of the B.1.1.7, B.C. is considering screening only that variant and “saving the whole genome sequencing capacity to be able to do more systematic, unbiased testing of random samples because we only have limited capacity per week.”
When asked if B.C., can release preliminary PCR screening tests before genome sequencing, Henry said, “we can do that.” However, she raised concerns that screening data could give an “inflated number of ones that are not necessarily variants that we’re worried about.”
On Tuesday, B.C. recorded 1,068 new COVID cases, including 207 variants of concern, all but one of which were detected in the Vancouver Coastal Health region. Of the 3,766 total variant cases found in B.C. to date, 266 are active cases, which Henry said is about three per cent of B.C.’s 8,671 active cases.
However, Vancouver-based data scientist Jens von Bergmann said that because of the weeklong delay in confirming variant cases through genome sequencing, comparing active variant cases to active COVID-19 cases, typically confirmed within 24 hours, isn’t an accurate reflection of the current situation.
“Of course there’s going to be less (variants) that are active, so that’s not a good metric given the delays (of the genome sequencing),” said von Bergmann, founder of data analysis company MountainMath. “You’re comparing something that lags by a week on average to something that’s delayed by about a day.”
Caroline Colijn, a Canada 150 Research Chair in mathematics for evolution, infection and public health with Simon Fraser University, said modelling projections show if the status quo continues with no additional restrictions introduced, B.C. could be seeing more than 3,000 daily cases by the end of April. The variants of concern are growing “exponentially,” doubling every eight days, she said.
As regular COVID-19 cases decline and variants of concern take over, Colijn said it could be a matter of weeks before variant cases reach almost 90 per cent of total cases.
The P.1 variant is believed to be as much as 2 1/2 times more transmissible than earlier strains of the coronavirus. Experts in Brazil have warned that young people aren’t only more likely to get infected, but also more likely to die. There’s also some concern, Colijn said, that the P.1 variant is better at avoiding natural immunity, meaning people who have already contracted COVID-19, or received the vaccine, could become infected again.
Henry said public health officials are watching closely for any indicators that the variants are resistant to the vaccine but there’s been no evidence of that so far.
Henry said the variants are also causing more hospitalizations, particularly among younger adults. Of the 328 people in hospital, 63 are infected with variants of concern.
In late March, a team of researchers at St. Paul’s Hospital developed a new method for rapidly identifying COVID-19 variants of concern that detected a cluster of over 215 P.1 variant cases, which more than doubled the number of such cases in the province. It’s unclear if the BCCDC is using the same rapid technology to identify variants quicker than genome sequencing allows.
Colijn said if people have more up-to-date information on the prevalence of variants of concern, they might be less likely to flout public health guidelines.
“The public benefit of it is if people understand the risk better, they can make better decisions,” she said.
TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada is shifting its vaccination campaign to target frontline workers, moving away from a largely age-based rollout as the country tries to get a handle on the raging third wave of the pandemic.
Canada‘s approach thus far has left unvaccinated many so-called “essential workers,” like daycare providers, bus drivers and meatpackers, all of whom are among those at higher risk of COVID-19 transmission. Provinces are now trying to adjust their strategy to tackle the surge driven by new variants.
Targeting frontline workers and addressing occupation risk is vital if Canada wants to get its third wave under control, says Simon Fraser University mathematician and epidemiologist Caroline Colijn, who has modelled Canadian immunization strategies and found “the sooner you put essential workers [in the vaccine rollout plan], the better.”
Initially, Canada prioritized long-term care residents and staff for the vaccines, as well as the very elderly, health workers, residents of remote communities and Indigenous people.
Targeting vaccinations by age made sense early on in a pandemic that ravaged Canada‘s long-term care homes, Colijn said. But now, immunizing those at highest risk of transmission brings the greatest benefit.
“If you protect these individuals you also protect someone in their 60s whose only risk is when they go to the store. … The variants are here now. So if we pivot now, but it takes us two months to do it, then we will lose that race.”
Data released on Tuesday from the Institute of Clinical and Evaluative Sciences showed that Toronto’s neighbourhoods with the highest rates of COVID-19 infections had the lowest vaccination rates, underscoring the disparities in vaccination.
‘IT’S A JUGGERNAUT’
On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a plan to have mobile vaccine clinics target COVID-19 “hotspots” and high-risk worksites, although he stopped short of giving people paid time off to get the shot.
Karim Kurji, medical officer of health in York Region north of Toronto, characterizes the shift in vaccination priority from age to transmission risk as moving from defence to offence.
“It’s a juggernaut in terms of the immunization machinery, and turning it around takes a lot of effort,” Kurji said.
Meanwhile, officials in the western province of Alberta say they are offering vaccines to more than 2,000 workers at Cargill’s meatpacking plant in High River, site of one of Canada‘s largest workplace COVID-19 outbreaks. Provincial officials said in a statement they are looking to expand the pilot to other plants.
Quebec will start vaccinating essential workers such as those in education, childcare and public safety in Montreal, where neighbourhoods with the highest vaccination rates have been among those with the lowest recorded infection rates.
The people doing the highest-risk jobs, from an infectious disease perspective, are more likely to be poor, non-white and new Canadians, health experts say. They are less likely to have paid leave to get tested or vaccinated or stay home when sick and are more likely to live in crowded or multi-unit housing. They need to be prioritized for vaccination and their vaccination barriers addressed, experts say.
Naheed Dosani, a Toronto palliative care physician and health justice activist, said making vaccines available to high-risk communities is not enough without addressing barriers to access.
“The face of COVID-19 and who was being impacted changed dramatically. The variants seemed to take hold in communities where essential workers live. … This [pivot] is a step in the right direction and will hopefully save lives.”
(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Denny Thomas and Aurora Ellis)
OTTAWA (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic and its damaging impact on women has underlined the need for a national childcare plan, which would also help the economic recovery, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Thursday.
Since taking up her job in August, Freeland has repeatedly spoken about a “feminist agenda,” and has said childcare will be part of a stimulus package worth up to C$100 billion ($79.6 billion) over three years. She will unveil details in her April 19 budget.
“I really believe COVID-19 has created a window of political opportunity and maybe an epiphany … on the importance of early learning and childcare,” Freeland told a online convention of Canada‘s ruling Liberal Party.
The budget is set to be a springboard for an election that Liberal insiders say is likely in the second half of the year.
Canadian governments of various stripes have mused about a national childcare program for decades but never acted, thanks in part to the cost and also the need to negotiate with the 10 provinces, which deliver many social programs.
Freeland said a childcare program would help counter “an incredibly dangerous drop” in female employment since the start of the pandemic.
“It is a surefire way to drive jobs and economic growth … you have higher participation of women in the labor force,” Freeland said. “My hope … is that being able to make that economic argument as well is going be to one of the ways that we get this done.”
Freeland, who is taking part this week in meetings of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations and the International Monetary Fund, said U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had told her they saw early learning and child care as a driver for economic recovery.
($1=1.2560 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Leslie Adler)
Good morning. Here is the latest news on COVID-19 and its impact on Ottawa.
Ottawa’s top doctor warns schools could remain closed after the April break next week
Ottawa sets new record for COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations on Friday
The city of Ottawa admits it doesn’t have enough supply to vaccinate residents 50 and older in high-priority neighbourhoods
Kingston closes popular waterfront park to prevent COVID-19 spread
COVID-19 by the numbers in Ottawa (Ottawa Public Health data):
New COVID-19 cases: 242 new cases on Friday
Total COVID-19 cases: 19,030
COVID-19 cases per 100,000 (previous seven days): 146.0
Positivity rate in Ottawa: 9.2 per cent (April 2 to April 8)
Reproduction Number: 1.05 (seven day average)
Who should get a test?
Ottawa Public Health says you can get a COVID-19 test at an assessment centre, care clinic, or community testing site if any of the following apply to you:
You are showing COVID-19 symptoms;
You have been exposed to a confirmed case of the virus, as informed by Ottawa Public Health or exposure notification through the COVID Alert app;
You are a resident or work in a setting that has a COVID-19 outbreak, as identified and informed by Ottawa Public Health;
You are a resident, a worker or a visitor to long-term care, retirement homes, homeless shelters or other congregate settings (for example: group homes, community supported living, disability-specific communities or congregate settings, short-term rehab, hospices and other shelters);
You are a person who identifies as First Nations, Inuit or Métis;
You are a person travelling to work in a remote First Nations, Inuit or Métis community;
You received a preliminary positive result through rapid testing;
You require testing 72 hours before a scheduled (non-urgent or emergent) surgery (as recommended by your health care provider);
You are a patient and/or their 1 accompanying escort travelling out of country for medical treatment;
You are an international student that has passed their 14-day quarantine period;
You are a farm worker;
You are an educator who cannot access pharmacy-testing; or
You are in a targeted testing group as outlined in guidance from the Chief Medical Officer of Health.
The Brewer Ottawa Hospital/CHEO Assessment Centre: Open Monday to Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
The Moodie Care and Testing Centre: Open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Open Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. (testing only)
The Heron Care and Testing Centre: Open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The Ray Friel Care and Testing Centre: Open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (testing only)
COVID-19 Assessment Centre at Howard Darwin Centennial Arena: Open daily 8:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Centretown Community Health Centre: Open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Sandy Hill Community Health Centre: Open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 pm.
Somerset West Community Health Centre: Open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Wednesday.
COVID-19 Drive-Thru Assessment Centre at 300 Coventry Road: Open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Vaccine eligibility screening tool:
To check and see if you are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Ottawa, click here.
COVID-19 screening tool:
The COVID-19 screening tool for students heading back to in-person classes can be found here.
Classic Symptoms: fever, new or worsening cough, shortness of breath
Other symptoms: sore throat, difficulty swallowing, new loss of taste or smell, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, pneumonia, new or unexplained runny nose or nasal congestion
Less common symptoms: unexplained fatigue, muscle aches, headache, delirium, chills, red/inflamed eyes, croup
Ottawa’s top doctor warns it’s “more likely than not” that all elementary and secondary schools in Ottawa will be closed for in-person learning after the April break.
“I am now thinking the probability that schools will close to in-person learning after the spring break is higher than the probability the COVID-19 situation will improve in time to keep schools open,” said Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health.
“My heart is heavy because I know how important schools are to the health of our community.”
Etches says Ottawa Public Health will make a decision by next Wednesday on whether schools will reopen or close after the April Break.
Ottawa Public Health reported 242 new cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa on Friday, the highest one-day case count in the capital during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The surging numbers prompted the city’s medical officer of health to issue a rallying cry to Ottawa residents, saying the city has reached a key point in the COVID-19 “marathon.”
“We are tired. We’re fatigued. We want this to be over. And this is the point in our COVID marathon where we’re hitting the wall,” Dr. Vera Etches told reporters Friday. “This is our defining moment. It’s a moment where we’ve got to break through that wall.”
Ottawa’s positivity rate increased to 9.2 per cent for the period of April 2 to 8 from 8.8 per cent. Ottawa’s weekly incidence rate is now 146 cases per 100,000 people.
Residents aged 50 and over in three hot spot postal code areas in Ottawa can now book an appointment to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but the city warns it doesn’t have enough vaccine supply to vaccinate everyone.
On Friday, Ontario opened vaccine appointments at community clinics to residents born in 1971 or earlier who live in certain “hot spots.” In Ottawa, the hot spots have been identified as postal codes K1T, K1V, K2V.
A memo from Dr. Vera Etches and Ottawa’s general manager of emergency and protective services Anthony Di Monte said residents 50 years of age and older living in the provincially identified “hot spots” of K1T, K1V and K2V are eligible for vaccine appointments at community clinics.
Residents living in the high-priority neighbourhoods of Emerald Woods – Sawmill Creek and Greenboro East and Ledbury – Heron Gate and Ridgemont will have the option to book at either a community clinic or at a pop-up clinic.
One day after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared in Kingston’s University District, the city is closing the popular Breakwater Park until the end of the university school year to prevent large gatherings.
Mayor Bryan Paterson has issued an emergency order to close Breakwater Park for the next 10 days.
“This timeline coincides with students move-out, but can be extended if needed. As one of our most popular community parks, closing it is a last resort,” said Paterson in a statement
“Yesterday, however, we saw troubling instances of overcrowding, which is especially concerning given the current outbreak in the nearby University District.”
Pictures on social media showed dozens of people in the popular park along the waterfront on Thursday. During the provincewide shutdown, outdoor gatherings are limited to a maximum of five people.
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