Ontario science table shows COVID-19 levels dropping in wastewater, except in the north

Ontario’s Science Advisory Table shows COVID-19 levels in wastewater data are steadily declining in all regions except in northern areas of the province.

Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of the science table, said daily case counts changed late last year when polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing eligibility was changed to only be offered to those living or working in high-risk settings, such as hospitals or long-term care facilities.

To get a sense of what’s happening with COVID-19 cases, scientists are looking to see the concentration of viral material in wastewater samples to gauge if case numbers are rising or falling, said Juni, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Toronto.

“We saw a peak around the fifth of January in the province of Ontario and now a sustained decrease in concentration,” he said.

“This will probably continue on average, for the province, until the next reopening steps.”

Change in last 10 days

However, Juni said it’s a different story in northern Ontario.

“After a peak around the fifth of January, we had a decrease, and now during the last roughly 10 days or so, we started to see an increase again, which corresponds relatively well to the situation you’re seeing in your hospitals.”

Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of Ontario’s Science Advisory Table, says parts of the province’s north ‘seem to be challenged a bit more’ when it comes to COVID-19 levels in wastewater. (CBC)

Juni said that overall, hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are dropping across the province, but in northern Ontario, that’s been “less pronounced” than other areas of the province

“It just seems that parts of the north seem to be challenged a bit more, which fits well to what we see when we look at case counts and rates,” he said.

“In the province, Northwestern, Porcupine, Thunder Bay, Algoma, and Sudbury and Districts are the places that have the highest rates per 100,000 right now.”

Extra precautions urged as restrictions ease

Juni said he’s not sure why case counts are staying high in parts of northern Ontario.

“What certainly contributes is you came relatively late in the Omicron wave and had initially not much going on,” he said.

“What we estimate right now is since the beginning of the Omicron wave, roughly four million people have been infected in Ontario. When I look at the curve … you see that your curve starts to rise later than other parts of the province. It may simply be that there are still less people who contribute to the wall of immunity through infection.”

The COVID-19 Science Advisory Table’s online dashboard shows viral levels in wastewater data is on a steady decline, except in northern Ontario. (Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table)

Juni said with restrictions starting to ease on Thursday, everyone needs to take extra precautions, especially people in northern Ontario.

“Right now what we know is that given age and sex … somebody who has had three doses of a vaccine is roughly 50 times less likely to die or end up in the ICU [hospital intensive care unit] as compared to somebody who is unvaccinated,” he said.

“We just need to continue to mask up and potentially reconsider at least in certain areas is it the right movement to lift the capacity limit, locally. It’s just important for everybody to tread carefully.”

‘We’re waiting for you’

All health units in northern Ontario continue to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Dr. Kit Young Hoon, medical officer of health for the Northwestern Health Unit, said vaccine uptake has been good in her district.

“Nearly 75 per cent of people age 50 and older have received a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine,” she said.

“Our vaccination rates are among the highest in the province, which has helped to protect our most vulnerable residents and our health-care system.”

Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, medical officer of health for Public Health Sudbury and Districts, said that as of Friday, children between ages 12 and 17 will be able to get their booster shots. 

She said it’s important for that age group and others to get a booster shot.

“We have about 50,000 in our service area who are currently eligible for their booster dose but who have yet to come forward,” she said.

“Come on and get your dose. We have capacity, we have vaccines. We’re waiting for you.”

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