In Simcoe-Muskoka region, the numbers do lie… but it’s a lie of omission.
Because of case surges and new prioritized testing eligibility focused on vulnerable populations, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s medical officer of health, Dr. Charles Gardner, is inclined not to believe the dip on the COVID case count graphs for the area.
During previous waves, a 15 per cent reduction in lab-confirmed cases week-over-week might prompt Gardner to say the region is starting to “plateau” in its COVID levels. This time, however, he said it is no indication of the big picture.
“I do not think we can at all be confident that we’re seeing a reduction in transmission in the community at this time,” said Gardner.
The provincial lab testing results produced positive results for 3,545 Simcoe-Muskoka residents during the week of Dec. 26, which is five times higher than the peak of the third wave.
“The completeness of data that we have for you is not what it had been in the past, and this is due to the difficulty that we’ve had keeping up with case and contact management for several weeks… and also a change in provincial direction about testing,” said Gardner.
With limited exceptions, only those who work or live in congregate care settings can get a publicly funded and reported PCR test, as well as anyone who is hospitalized with symptoms. A large majority of the population, even if symptomatic, have to self-isolate without a test or with only a rapid test result, and those results are not reported publicly.
“So with those changes, we may see a reduction in our case count that is not actually reflective of the transmission pattern in the community, and I think we need to exercise some caution in the interpretation of the data that we have,” said Gardner.
The health unit stopped reporting geographical data for its new confirmed cases as of Wednesday. Gardner said the municipal breakdown no longer provided an accurate picture of COVID in the region.
“I think certainly we should only provide data if we think it’s reliable to begin with, so that’s the reason why we are going to discontinue it,” said Gardner.
Beyond informing residents of COVID spread in their area, COVID rates have typically been used as a metric to inform government decisions on closures, capacity limits, and in-person activities.
Without reliable data on the number of people infected in the region and in the province, Gardner said he and other medical officers of health are turning their attention to other factors.
“My focus right now is making sure we’re able to function,” he said. “What's of concern to me right now is the continuation of critical societal function like health care, schools, key municipal services (snow clearance and safe water), waste management, and first-responders," such as police officers, firefighters and paramedics.
The doctor meets weekly with municipal CAOs to get a first-hand account of how municipalities are impacted by COVID-related illnesses among staff and self-isolation requirements.
Gardner said he’s told them to reach out if they need support, including the temporary easing of requirements in order to keep critical functions happening.
“I’m focused not so much on data, but knowledge — on having various ways of knowing how well we’re functioning right now," he said.
Though the doctor is part of provincial-level discussions for what kind of metrics or indicators should be used during the current COVID wave to decide what and when things can open next, he said he has no clear answer on how or when the province should reopen activities that are currently closed.