On the same day the World Health Organization confirmed that COVID-19 continues to be a “public health emergency of international concern”, Ottawa Public Health tabled a draft budget reflecting that COVID-19 is expected to be an ongoing public health issue in Ottawa for the foreseeable future.
For the fourth year in a row, costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic are expected to make up a significant portion of Ottawa Public Health’s budget. The $128 million 2023 OPH draft budget, tabled at Monday’s board of health meeting, includes $77 million in base funding, the bulk of which covers salaries and benefits, and $51 million in one-time COVID-19 funding, to cover costs associated with the pandemic.
Some of the public health budget is funded by both the province and the City of Ottawa, with the province paying 70 per cent. Other areas are fully funded by the province or the city, or covered by fees. The province pays the entire cost of pandemic-related expenses.
The health board is scheduled to vote on the draft budget at its February meeting.
Before the draft budget was tabled, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches warned that levels of COVID-19 in Ottawa remain “concerningly elevated” even as rates of influenza and RSV have dropped dramatically after an earlier surge.
She noted that the highly contagious Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 is spreading quickly across the province. Public Health Ontario forecasts the subvariant nicknamed Kraken now makes up 36.8 per cent of all cases in the province and is growing.
“Clearly COVID is far from over.”
Etches told the board that Ottawa saw as many deaths in 2022 as it did in the first year of the pandemic. There was a decline in deaths in 2021, but that didn’t last, as the highly contagious Omicron variant took hold.
COVID-19 has continued circulating at relatively high levels in Ottawa and across the province, even between waves, with levels never dropping to the low numbers seen earlier in the pandemic.
Etches continues to recommend “layers of protection”, including wearing masks, staying home when sick and getting vaccinated.
In response to continuing high levels of COVID-19 and the arrival of a new subvariant, the province has expanded access to PCR testing to anyone over 60 and has made it easier for people to get access to Paxlovid, an anti-viral treatment that reduces severity of COVID-19 infection.
While the pandemic continues to be a focus of Ottawa Public Health’s work, it is resuming full service delivery in some areas that had to be cut back during the pandemic, including services for mental health promotion and injury prevention. OPH will also focus on immunization. It has already made progress in helping students catch up on some of the routine childhood vaccines that were missed during the pandemic.
OPH will provide more access to routine immunizations this year and has resumed sending letters to parents of students whose immunization records are not up to date.
“Disruptions from the pandemic mean many children and youth are behind or have missed vaccines,” said Etches, notably three vaccines that are offered to Grade 7 students in school — meningococcal, Hepatitis B and HPV.
After beginning work to help students catch up last year, coverage for those vaccines in Ottawa is now above average for the province and OPH is continuing to offer catch-up vaccines.
Officials described it as a “transitional budget” because it is beginning a return to pre-pandemic services in some areas. Etches noted that demand for some services, such as healthy baby clinics, has increased dramatically, in part because so many people don’t have family doctors.
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