Ottawa’s success at reducing its COVID-19 case count — and keeping it relatively low — over the past two months may be unique in the world, say Canadian epidemiologists.
“I don’t know any other city like Ottawa in the world,” said Doug Manuel, a physician and senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital.
“The leader board has changed,” said Manuel. “We were [among] the highest in the country not even two months ago, and now we’re bucking the trend internationally.”
But as much as experts say Ottawans should be proud of their accomplishment, they also warn that a slip in following the rules — keeping two metres apart, wearing masks, and especially not socializing outside our own households — could rapidly lay all that hard work to waste.
An Ottawa pedestrian wears a mask even outdoors. Despite our ‘unique’ situation regarding our promising COVID-19 stats, experts urge us to stay vigilant. (Mathieu Thériault/Radio-Canada) ‘It’s pretty remarkable’
In mid-October, Ottawa saw its COVID-19 infection rate reached 132 active cases per 100,000 residents — higher than Toronto’s and many other Canadian cities. The people of Ottawa were shocked.
There were official warnings, there were public scoldings and there was a four-week partial lockdown. That seemed to work, as Ottawa’s COVID-19 daily case count has been generally declining for the past seven weeks.
Our infection rate now sits at 29.5 per 100,000 residents, which is still serious enough to keep us in the “orange” or intermediate zone of the province’s five-tier system for scoring COVID-19 severity. But our stats keep us well away from the top-level grey zone that Toronto and surrounding municipalities find themselves in.
It’s not that other cities aren’t also seeing their COVID-19 numbers come down, said Manuel, but in other places around the globe, the cases are generally declining from a relatively high level. For example, in London, England, the number of new daily coronavirus cases has fallen by about half over the last four weeks of an economic lockdown in that country, but there are still 154 active cases per 100,000 residents.
“We kind of woke up and got some messages and got back together when we were about 100 to 150 cases a day,” said Manuel. “I don’t know anyone who’s done that.… It’s pretty remarkable.”
Great public health, white-collar population
Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and assistant professor with the faculty of information at the University of Toronto, said Ottawa is “absolutely going in the opposite direction to almost everybody else,” especially in the northern hemisphere.
He believes Ottawa’s success is due largely to the capital’s demographics and its public health leadership.
The relatively large proportion of government and high-tech jobs in Ottawa means that many more people are able to work from home than in other cities. As well, people of colour, who have been found to be disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, account for a smaller segment of Ottawa’s population than the Toronto region, for example.
“You’ve also got a population that is educated and able and compliant and therefore equipped to respond,” he said. “And so the outcome was quite positive.”
Furness also gives kudos to Dr. Vera Etches and the team at Ottawa Public Health for their ability to reach out to the community with the ever-shifting advice on how to keep COVID-19 at bay.
“You’ve got excellent public health leadership in Ottawa,” Furness said.
Etches in particular has a way of connecting with the people of Ottawa. Not many public officials would admit to showing up to work so frazzled that she forgot to put on her skirt.
Oh my goodness! I was dressing in the dark this morning and distracted by setting up a surprise for my boys, rushing to talk with Rob Snow on 1310 News…but I still can’t believe I made it to City Hall without my skirt on under my rain jacket! Yikes! Time for another break…
“I think this makes a difference — we really need to be able to connect to people,” said Dr. Peter Jüni, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the University of Toronto, and a director of research at St. Michael’s Hospital.
Jüni is also the scientific director of the province’s Science Advisory Table.
He agrees that Ottawa is “really unique” in being able to keep COVID-19 cases relatively low, but warns our success will be fleeting if we let our guard down.
Peter Jüni, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the University of Toronto, says that when it comes to COVID-19, new cases may only become apparent more than a week after transmission happens, leading to the potential for uncontrolled spread. 0:53 ‘Playing with fire’
Some in Ottawa may be wondering why, despite our world-beating numbers, we have to follow the same restrictions as cities faring worse, especially during the upcoming holidays.
Experts say those feelings are understandable, and even logical. But the COVID-19 situation is precarious — as Manuel put it, like “trying to balance a broom on your finger.”
Manuel pointed to the fact that the daily numbers, including the virus count in the wastewater — data that Ottawa alone makes public — have been edging up slightly in recent days. If we begin to socialize more, especially indoors, we risk the chance of a few “superspreader events” that will send COVID-19 numbers rocketing skyward.
“This thing is really contagious, and it is contagious, unlike SARS, when we’re not symptomatic, and that makes it very challenging,” Jüni said.
He likened the spread of COVID-19 to throwing a match into the brush. One time, maybe the second time, nothing happens. But that third match starts a devastating blaze.
“So now, right now, it’s just playing with fire.”
Colin Furness, infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, says the way people think about COVID-19 makes a difference in how they act to limit its spread. 1:03
Furness uses a different metaphor to describe Ottawa’s efforts to keep COVID-19 at bay.
“We’re on a parachute and we’re descending nice and slowly,” he said. “So this is going really, really well. Who among us wants to take the parachute off now?”