The rate of COVID-19 infection in Ontario as measured by wastewater data is now at its highest point in more than a year.
Data released last week by Public Health Ontario (PHO) shows that the province’s COVID-19 wastewater signal has approximately doubled over the last month – from one to 1.9 - and is now at its highest point since at least mid-November 2022. The GTA’s wastewater signal is at its highest point since Jan. 6, 2022.
Meanwhile, other indicators are also pointing to rapidly rising levels of viral activity as the temperatures cool and residents head indoors.
In the last week, 21,000 (PCR) COVID-19 tests were completed, resulting in a positivity rate of just over 20 per cent in Ontario – a near doubling over rates recorded in the summer.
While scarcity of testing has rendered it near-impossible to provide an accurate estimate on the number of Ontarians currently infected with COVID-19, both provincial public health and national hospitalization data show cases are on the rise.
In Canada, the total number COVID-19 hospitalizations increased from 3,894 to 4,369 in the last seven days, with 248 of those admissions taking place in Ontario.
According to Unity Health Network Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a peak is expected as we enter the winter months.
“It's the fall and winter, of course we are going to see more cases,” Bogoch told CTV News Toronto Monday. “The rise is expected.”
As most individuals have either become infected with COVID-19, received a vaccination – or both – Bogoch said that a majority of individuals are not experiencing severe symptoms, or hospitalization, when infected.
According to the doctor, to paint an accurate picture of the respiratory health in the province, data on all such illnesses must be considered together, not just that detailing COVID-19 levels.
“We’re at the stage now that, while all these viruses are certainly unique, we should be looking at a more holistic approach,” Bogoch said. “[Public health] campaigns should not be solely related to one vaccine or pathogen,” he said.
According to the PHO, over the last week, COVID-19 cases made up the majority of respiratory illness reported in the province (20.4 per cent), followed by respiratory syncytial virus (7.9 per cent), and entero/rhinovirus (6.8 per cent).
WHO IS MOST AT RISK?
According to Bogoch, while most infected with COVID-19 are not likely to experience severe symptoms, Ontario’s senior population remains the most disproportionately affected.
“If you look at the data, you can see a very, very clear risk for hospitalization and death in those over 70-years-old and, especially, those over 80-years-old,” he said.
His concern, he explained, is a lack of uptake in updated vaccinations amongst those age groups – only around 25 per cent have received a booster designed to protect against the XBB.1.5 Omicron subvariant that has become dominant across the country.
“That’s a big problem because those are the age groups that are getting sick and disproportionately ending up in hospital,” he continued.
HOW CAN WE PROTECT OURSELVES AND OTHERS?
Medical experts have urged all residents to stay up to date on their vaccinations – both for COVID-19 and influenza.
The two latest COVID-19 vaccines, reformulated by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are specifically designed to fight XBB.1.5.
“We really need to lower barriers to vaccinations,” Bogoch said. “You have to think of it from a multidimensional standpoint – there needs to be age, language, and culturally appropriate communication.”
Bogoch called Toronto’s vaccination for homebound seniors a “fantastic” example.
“That's a really smart initiative – but how many people know it exists or how to access it?”
An improvement in communication could help see more seniors opt to get vaccinated, he said.
“It would go a long way in terms of protecting the vulnerable,” he said.
Currently, rapid antigen tests are still available for free at select pharmacies and retailers, but only while supplies last. For a list of PCR-testing locations in the province, click here.
Masking, while now only mandated in certain healthcare settings, will help prevent infections, Bogoch underlined.
“Unfortunately, the conversation around masking has become so polarized, but putting a mask on will of course help,” he said.
While there are no mandated requirements for isolation in place, the Ministry of Health recommends staying home when you are feeling unwell, up until 24-hours after symptoms have resolved. For ten days after the onset of symptoms, it advises wearing a mask and avoiding non-essential tasks.
If infected with COVID-19 and experiencing severe symptoms, certain individuals will be eligible for free anti-viral treatments, if prescribed by a physician, nurse practitioner, or pharmacist.
To be eligible for antiviral treatment, individuals must either:
60 years old and above
18 to 59 years old and have underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes or heart and lung disease
Older than 18 years old and immunocompromised
Ontario offers a free self-screening tool for eligibility of antiviral treatments.
With files from CTV News’ Heather Butts