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Health unit 'exploring' how to share local COVID wastewater data

The information's been collected locally since July 2021, few regions in the north are publicly reporting the data that's an early indicator of the virus' activity in a community
2020-05-11 PHU building
The Porcupine Health Unit. Maija Hoggett/TimminsToday

About 10 months after the Porcupine Health Unit (PHU) started collecting COVID-19 wastewater data, the organization is still exploring how to share the information being gathered. 

Wastewater data is being collected across the province and is an early indicator of the virus' activity in a community.

In the Porcupine Health Unit region, testing is being done in Timmins, Kapuskasing and Moosonee. The local tracking began in July 2021. The information gathered hasn't been made publicly available, although the province is encouraging health units to release it. 

TimminsToday made multiple requests to the Porcupine Health Unit for the public information and to talk to a representative about it. The health unit provided a statement that says the wastewater surveillance data isn't being released "due to the limitations and the quality of the data." 

"We are continually learning more about wastewater surveillance for COVID-19, sampling strategies and testing methods, and how the results can be used as a tool for public health. This is a rapidly evolving field, and there are still many unknowns in how to interpret the connection between SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater and COVID-19 infection in the community. The PHU is exploring how to share the data in a way that is useful and represents the local context," it reads.

It noted the three communities represent about 40 per cent of the population in its coverage area.

"Wastewater samples are typically collected three times per week, however, due to large distances in rural areas and colder temperatures in the North, this may not always be possible," said the health unit. 

"The small sample size and availability of data makes it difficult to identify signals and trends based on the data received. At this time, due to a limited sample size, the wastewater data is limited in its ability to predict COVID-19 cases in the communities in the PHU region. The Porcupine Health Unit continues to monitor the wastewater data as well as the number of confirmed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths to assess the COVID-19 situation in the health unit area."

The local program began in July when initial wastewater data was compared to local case counts to establish a baseline level. A September news release from the health unit about the monitoring promised it would notify the public of any increasing trends.

In July 2021, the Porcupine Health Unit region was coming out of a hard-hitting third wave of the pandemic locally and access to the gold-standard PCR testing was widely available. 

Earlier this year, the province limited access to PCR tests largely to those living or working in the highest risk settings and Indigenous people and their household members or people travelling to a First Nation for work. 

The wastewater surveillance is co-ordinated by the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) and the samples are sent to labs across the province. 

The monitoring program calculates the concentration of the virus' genetic code in the samples collected. If there's an increase in the concentration of the virus in wastewater samples from an area, there's typically a five- to seven-day lag before an increase in COVID-19 cases is detected through PCR testing.

So far, there's been no co-ordinated way for the information to be made equally available across the province. 

MECP spokesperson Gary Wheeler said the ministry understands "several municipalities are sharing results with their residents, whether by posting publicly on their websites, through internal dashboards or in regular briefings. We also understand that public health units have the data and we are encouraging them to make their data public."

Some health units have actively shared the information. 

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, which covers from New Tecumseth in the south up to Muskoka, only collects samples in Barrie, Orillia, Collingwood and Midland. It actively reports the data via an online map that notes if the testing data in each community is showing an increase or decrease in the virus, or if the virus is present with no trend.

Ottawa Public Health also recently issued an alert after the wastewater data showed a very high and increasing level of the virus. 

The Ontario Science Table reports regional results. For Northern Ontario, that information includes seven public health units.

In Northern Ontario, incomplete data from the science table shows the SARS-CoV-2 levels in wastewater increasing beyond the peak experienced in early January.

Algoma Public Health and the Thunder Bay District Health Unit are reporting the data on their respective websites. In Sudbury, the information is on the municipality's website.