Public Health Tips: COVID-19 Transmission and Exposure

There are more and more people testing positive for COVID-19 in Ottawa. This is concerning – for our community, for public health, for me.

Over the last few weeks with the alarming increase of COVID, I have heard from many of you wanting to know where the transmission is coming from. Today we’re sharing information we hope will empower each and every one of us to shift behaviours and make choices to keep close contacts as low as possible.

I want to thank the vast majority of people who are limiting their close contacts.  For others, let me be clear that I mean we need to keep our close contacts to people we live with and one or two people who support us or we risk closures of businesses and schools.  When people testing positive increase exponentially as we are seeing, the disruption to society and the pressure on our hospitals and long-term care homes is too much to sustain critical services.

Earlier this week, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) in collaboration with our partners at the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study released data that shows the prevalence of COVID-19 by neighbourhood in our city. While this data helps us identify areas that may need more support, it only reflects where individuals testing positive live, not where transmission is occurring.

The majority of transmission is still occurring between close contacts in private social gatherings, however more recent data is revealing examples of exposure in other settings.

Where residents of Ottawa may be exposed to the COVID-19 virus

OPH follows up with every resident who tests positive for the COVID-19 virus and asks them who they’ve been in contact with.

When a person tests positive for the virus, our team asks questions about where they have been in the days leading up to developing symptoms, being tested, and self-isolating, so that we can try and identify where they may have come in contact with (or been exposed to) the virus.

People who test positive often list many different types of situations and locations where they may have come in contact with the virus, so it is sometimes not possible to pinpoint the exact situation where the virus was transmitted from one person to another.

Each and every one of us has an important role to play in preventing transmission in the Ottawa region, in both private and public settings. Transmission is occurring through people connected by social interactions, in complex networks across the city.

Looking across the data we have collected from residents of Ottawa who have tested positive for the virus in the first two weeks of September, we found that:

  • 1 in 2 people who test positive have been exposed to the virus through their household. It is important to note that the first person with COVID-19 in the household obtained it while in the community.
  • 1 in 4 people who test positive are exposed to the virus from members outside of their household through social interactions in indoor or outdoor settings—this is a major driver of transmission in Ottawa and is happening at social gatherings in places like homes, backyards, cottages, short stay apartments, hotels, restaurants and bars, during events with family and friends like birthday parties, weddings, and house warmings. We are seeing these gatherings within the Ottawa region, but also learn of settings where people have been exposed by travel to Quebec and elsewhere in Canada.
  • In people who test positive over 40 years of age, 1 in 3 people are exposed to the virus from an outbreak, in particular through an institutional setting like a long-term care home or retirement home. This underscores how the level of transmission in our community affects people at highest risk of serious illness and death from the virus.
  • While the virus that causes COVID-19 is present in every neighbourhood across Ottawa, we are also seeing that 1 in 10 people who test positive without an identified close contact may be exposed to the virus in areas where we are seeing neighbourhood clusters. That being said, because this is based on where people live, it does not necessarily mean this is where people have ‘caught’ or acquired the virus. Exposure occurs where people congregate, and that includes workplaces and other public areas.

When we look overall at the early impact of school reopening and daycare attendance, we are seeing that 3 percent of people who test positive are linked to an outbreak in a school setting, but that 9 percent of people identify school as a possible exposure. We are seeing 3 percent of people who test positive identify daycare as a possible exposure. We recognize the strain that school and daycare closures are having on families, and want to thank parents and caregivers for everything that they are doing in trying to protect our children and community.OPH has created an infographic to give you a visual of the different exposure sites in Ottawa to help paint the picture. Exposure occurs in a variety of settings. It can start anywhere in the community: indoor and outdoor gatherings, workplaces, childcare establishments, travel, long-term care homes and businesses.

Someone can bring it from the home to these settings and vice versa, and the social gatherings that we are having outside our household are leading to transmission in our long-term care homes and schools.

As more people test positive for COVID-19, there are more close contacts our case management team has to reach out to.

Be COVID wise

The best way to protect ourselves and our loved ones is by being COVIDWise.

The transmission of COVID-19 continues to occur at a concerning rate throughout our community. We can all have an impact on bending the curve by reducing the extent of our social interactions beyond our household as much as possible, whether in private or public settings. OPH is dedicated to transparency and will continue to use the data we collect to tell the story of how the virus is travelling throughout our community.

Transmission occurs through people connected by social interactions and in a variety of settings: within the home, at a school, within a long-term care setting, at a wedding, at a restaurant or bar, even outdoors.

Exposure to COVID-19 can occur anywhere people congregate. But what ties these all together is not the setting itself; it’s about the behaviour.

The best way to limit your exposure to COVID-19 is to practice physical distancing and limit your close contacts to those within your household and 1 or 2 essential supports like childcare and caregivers. Additional layers of protection include wearing a mask, staying home when sick and washing your hands regularly.

These are the basics we all need to follow. It is imperative that we get back to basics to flatten the curve again especially as we approach the winter months. Nobody wants to take a step backwards. No one wants to go back to Stage 2.

Right now, most of the people who test positive for COVID-19 are in the younger age groups so hospitalizations remain relatively stable. But the more COVID-19 transmission occurs in the community, the more difficult it will be to protect our most vulnerable. Our hospitals do not have room to handle many COVID-related hospitalizations and our long-term care homes are stretched already.

No one should ever think that their individual actions don’t matter. It takes just one person going out in public while sick to infect dozens of others and hundreds of people needing to self-isolate.

We must all keep sharing this kind of information in different ways so everyone can grasp what we are dealing with and to change behaviours today.

Thank you. Merci,

Dr Vera Etches

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