Analysis: Why Ontario’s students return to school next week despite an Omicron rise

The riddle can be explained by the remarkable twist in how the virus has affected its targets in Ottawa during the pandemic.

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At first glance, there is a huge interruption between the most important announcements from Ontario’s chief physician, Dr. Kieran Moore, Thursday.

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On the one hand, he warned of the “overwhelmingly high” number of COVID-19 cases in the province and the sheer contagion of Omicron, the virus variant that took root in Ottawa a month ago.

But Moore also revealed that the county would send students in person back to school next Wednesday, after allowing a few extra days to ensure the classrooms are adequately ventilated and equipped with the highest quality face masks.

The riddle can be explained by the remarkable twist in how the virus has affected its targets in Ottawa during the pandemic.

On April 12, 2020, the first peak, the seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases approached 60. A year later, during a second peak, these peaked at 320. Earlier in the week, the seven-day average was nearly 590 and growing rapidly .

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Still, the number of admissions has taken a very different course – while these rose from 61 in April 2020 to 124 in April 2021, they dropped to just 13 this week.

Moore warned Thursday that hospitalizations would almost certainly increase in the coming weeks, thanks to Omicron’s widespread spread, but added that Omicron is the first variant of the virus “showing a decrease in the severity of the disease.”

Part of this reflects high levels of vaccination throughout the province, especially among seniors and other vulnerable groups. Still, the latest inventory on the COVID-19 dashboard maintained by Ottawa Public Health also shows no admissions for anyone under 18 years of age.

This may change in the coming weeks because there is a delay between the number of cases and the development of serious illnesses that require a visit to the hospital. Nevertheless, the extremely low base of hospital admissions involving younger patients was a factor in pushing the Ontario government toward keeping schools open for personal learning.

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Moore also acknowledged that the number of admissions due to COVID-19 has been exaggerated. He said he has asked hospitals to start removing data related to patients entering the emergency room for reasons other than COVID-19 – but who test positive for the virus once hospitalized, usually with mild or non-existent symptoms.

In fact, Moore outlined a number of changes to the way the province will collect information about COVID-19 – the most important being caused by a profound shift in the COVID-19 test protocols. Because Omicron has completely overwhelmed the ability of health officials to track and track the progress of the disease, the province reserves laboratory-based PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests for the most vulnerable people, such as long-term care residents, or front-line staff and medical staff.

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Moore said Thursday that the county also reserves the use of rapid antigen testing as much as possible for health officials and other key workers who need to be physically present at work. Before the holidays this month, many Canadians rushed to purchase these tests so they could safely attend family gatherings. The result here: long line-ups at pharmacies throughout the province.

This was despite a massive increase in the supply of COVID-19 tests, particularly from Abbott Laboratories in Chicago and BTNX in Markham. Moore noted that nearly 50 million of these tests had been deployed across the province by December 20th. Just 10 days earlier, according to federal government assemblies, about 34 million had been deployed.

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Public procurement officials have been busy. On Thursday, they confirmed that they have negotiated contracts to secure 425 million rapid tests, with Abbott and BTNX again at the helm, although the government refused to provide a time frame. Earlier this month, the number of secured quick tests was 112 million.

The huge jump in the number of rapid tests has, of course, taken the trouble to analyze COVID-19 trends, not least because Ontario and other provinces are not forcing people to pass on the results of their rapid tests to the health authorities. Thus, there is a significant undercount of positive COVID-19 cases.

If you get sick, Moore just said to assume it’s COVID-19 because Omicron is everywhere. If the symptoms are mild or you are asymptomatic, isolate for at least five days (provided you are double-vaccinated). The new rules also encourage residents of Ontario who test positive to voluntarily contact their close contacts.

The system apparently can no longer handle this job.

Moore’s underlying message is that it might be a job it should not have been involved in in the first place. Even when you include previous variants of the virus, only four percent of Ottawa residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and only four percent of these have been hospitalized. The latter numbers are declining for now, and that is the metric we need to be aware of.

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