Doctors, epidemiologists optimistic schools won't close during 4th wave

·3 min read
While COVID-19 cases have steadily trended upward, several health experts say they don't expect schools to shut down in the near future. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)
While COVID-19 cases have steadily trended upward, several health experts say they don't expect schools to shut down in the near future. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)

Several Ottawa-area health experts remain cautiously optimistic schools won't close during the pandemic's fourth wave as COVID-19 infections and outbreaks caused by the contagious delta variant climb.

As of Saturday, there were eight active outbreaks in schools and other child-care settings in Ottawa.

While 81 per cent of eligible Ottawans are fully immunized against COVID-19, doctors and epidemiologists say to prevent closures that proved inescapable during the last school year, the number will have to rise higher.

"It's avoidable if we really ratchet up vaccinations, so that all of the adults that these kids get in contact with are vaccinated," said Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

For now, COVID-19 vaccines are only available to those born in 2009 or earlier, leaving younger elementary students vulnerable to not just contracting the disease but also spreading it through the community.

Along with boosting vaccination rates, Deonandan told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning there are also "mitigation tools" that should be adopted, including better ventilation systems, higher-quality N95 masks and a more rigourous rapid testing regime.

Staff, as well as students Grade 1 and up, must already wear masks in most indoor settings, while self-screening will be required before coming into school facilities.

All four of Ottawa's school boards have also mandated masks for kindergartners. The province has also directed school boards to come up with vaccination policies for teachers and other staff.

"We still don't think that kids are going to get as sick as adults," said Deonandan.

"But this is a numbers game. And delta is so transmissible that it's going to infect so many people that the raw numbers of individual children who get seriously sick will be higher, even though the proportion might not be."

Trevor Pritchard/CBC
Trevor Pritchard/CBC

'I'm confident'

School outbreaks simply reflect COVID-19 transmission patterns in the wider community, said Dr. Robert Cushman, acting Medical Officer of Health for the Renfrew County and District Health Unit.

Even so, Cushman said schools have proven capable over the course of the pandemic of containing outbreaks and limiting the spread of the disease.

His health unit had the "notoriety" last year of being the first in Ontario to close a school due to COVID-19, but Cushman said there were only two subsequent outbreaks.

"These kids have suffered enough — their schooling, their mental health, their social lives," he said.

"I know we're dealing with the delta variant now, which we weren't dealing with a year ago. But I'm confident that the schools can do as good a job as any place in keeping the virus at bay."

WATCH | Ottawa schools likely to remain open during fourth wave:

Should be enough warning

Ontario has taken a more conservative approach than other jurisdictions when it comes to COVID-19 rules around schools, according to Dr. Doug Manuel, a senior scientist with The Ottawa Hospital who models local COVID-19 numbers.

That should give officials time to react if a spike in cases appears on the horizon, he said.

"I think if we're going to see school start running into problems, it's probably going to be in other places [first] more than in Ottawa," Manuel said.

"And we'll be able to adjust our efforts to keep schools open."

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