Smaller eastern Ontario health units have higher COVID-19 hospitalization rates

The acting medical officer of health for an eastern Ontario health unit says rising COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU admissions in outlying communities could be a warning for larger urban centres like Ottawa.

Dr. Rob Cushman, acting medical officer of health for the Renfrew County and District Health Unit, said there are currently 15 people from the area hospitalized, including three admitted to intensive care, among a population of 108,000.

That's a comparable number of hospitalizations to Canada's capital with a population about 10 times the size.

Just under 90 per cent of Renfrew County's population age 12 and up have had at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, which is comparable to Ottawa's 92 per cent, and 81 per cent of people 60 and older in that county have a third dose.

This signals to Cushman that Ottawa is not immune to rising hospitalizations.

"Just because something is going on in Renfrew County or Leeds, Lanark or Grenville (counties) today, that doesn't mean you won't see it in Ottawa tomorrow or a week from now," Cushman said.

"Certainly, the warning is there."

In Tuesday's daily update, meanwhile, Ottawa Public Health reported a jump from 11 to 19 patients in hospital with active COVID-19, including two in the ICU.

Doctor wishes province kept mask rules

Cushman said he would've preferred a slower lifting of the provincial mask mandate, as has been announced in Quebec.

He said there is less mask-wearing in rural areas compared to urban centres, with a less-dense population and travel amidst larger family and social circles as factors.

Residents should continue wearing masks and limiting contacts, he said — even thinking twice about going to a hockey game — because increasing cases and hospitalizations will start to affect the workforce.

"The amount of COVID in the community certainly affects our ability to ramp up the economy," Cushman said.

Leader in vaccine uptake hit in 6th wave

The Leeds-Grenville-Lanark Health Unit says 91.7 per cent of the population age five and older has been fully vaccinated and 70 per cent of the population 18 and older have had a third dose. Both lead the province.

Still, the health unit reported 16 people in hospital and four in the ICU in its last update on Monday.

In a statement, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paula Stewart said the number can be partly explained by the region's reporting, which unlike most in the province, included COVID patients for their entire duration in hospital.

Stewart said they will now adjust to the provincial guidance to only report those in their active COVID-19 phase — 10 days for most and 20 days if one needs ICU care.

Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen's University, said the older populations in some of the less-populated regions of eastern Ontario may also be more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness.

He said these rural areas may have experienced less COVID-19 infection during the first 18 months of the pandemic, so there may be less "hybrid immunity" that emerged from people getting both infected and subsequently vaccinated.

WATCH | Why are COVID-19 hospitalization rates higher in rural areas near Ottawa?

Evans said the Ontario government's move to a single provincewide COVID-19 strategy may lead to gaps for some areas.

"If we're going to handle things provincially and not regionally ... we need to consider what's happening in some of these smaller health units with lower population where the skew may be very much an older group," Evans said.

Evans welcomed the news of expanded national guidance for fourth doses, but adds even people who are not personally at risk can help keep people safe by wearing a mask, getting vaccinated and reducing their contacts.