OPH clarifies restaurant, gym outbreak data after 'confusion' and 'frustrations'

·3 min read

After the province released a pie chart that showed restaurants, bars and gyms represented only a sliver of Ottawa's total outbreaks Thursday, Ottawa Public Health took to Twitter to quell "confusion" and "frustrations" from the public.

Earlier in October, the province ordered Ottawa, along with Toronto and Peel region, into a modified Stage 2. That forced dine-in restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses to close doors for at least 28 days.

"Many of you are currently frustrated [and] know that we understand. Sometimes the data can be overwhelming, and we'd like to help," reads an Ottawa Public Health (OPH) Twitter thread posted Friday afternoon.

The chart in question shows there were three outbreaks declared at Ottawa restaurants and bars between Aug. 1 and Oct. 24 — just two per cent of Ottawa's total outbreaks. There were nine outbreaks in the gyms and sports category — or five per cent of total outbreaks.

"Yes, a relatively low [percentage]," said OPH in the Twitter thread. "[But] just because an outbreak was not declared in a specific setting, does not mean transmission did not occur there."

More context from the top doctor

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, said there's more to those outbreak numbers than face value.

"I want to give a little context to those numbers because they don't tell the whole story," Etches told CBC News Friday.

So far, outbreaks have been responsible for about a third of all confirmed COVID-19 cases in Ottawa. In other words, the majority of infections are not linked to reported outbreaks.

 Science Advisory and Modelling Consensus Tables
Science Advisory and Modelling Consensus Tables

Etches explained that in long-term care or daycare settings, OPH declares an outbreak after one person tests positive with COVID-19 because it's a high-risk setting. In a school, it's two positive cases.

To confirm an outbreak at a restaurant or a gym, there needs to be evidence of transmission between two people in that setting.

"Basically, the parameters for declaring outbreaks are different [and] some are easier to define and identify," reads an OPH tweet.

For example, Etches said, her team has traced people who are infectious to local restaurants, bars and gyms where outbreaks have not always been declared.

"We even have examples where ... different groups of employees in restaurants have tested positive," she said. "But it's not always clear. We can't say it's the setting because those employees have been socializing in other settings."

Why school outbreaks are easier to track

Etches explained that not everyone who tests positive remembers where they've been the previous 14 days; whereas in a school or child-care setting — which made up 39 per cent of all Ottawa outbreaks so far — officials have class lists and are screening people regularly.

"I'm not surprised there's a difference in how much we detect outbreaks in these different settings," she said.

When looking at the big picture, Etches said, things are going in the right direction in Ottawa. Spread of COVID-19 appears to be slowing down.

"On that front, it is encouraging what's happening in Ottawa," she said. "So you asked me, does that mean bars and restaurants need to open? It means we're looking at that ... because things are going in the right direction."