Quebec won't hesitate to send students home at the first signs of a coronavirus variant in their classroom, Health Minister Christian Dubé said Monday.
His comments come as education authorities have closed several schools around the province in recent days after outbreaks were suspected of being linked to the presence of a COVID virus variant.
In an interview with Radio-Canada on Monday, Dubé said cases of the variant are not increasing exponentially in Quebec.
But he also said the government wouldn't wait for confirmation in situations where a variant is suspected in an outbreak at a school.
"We are a lot more aggressive with class closures the moment there is the smallest amount of doubt that it could be a variant," he said. "We are worried but we are acting faster to shut down classes."
It can take several days for scientists to confirm the presence of a specific variant. The process requires sequencing the genomes in samples taken from people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
But Dubé said large outbreaks hint at the presence of variants. So far at least seven schools in the province have been partially, or fully, closed because of the presence of suspected variant cases:
Père-Vimont elementary school in Laval has been closed since Feb. 18. Administrators say 28 people at the school have tested positive for COVID-19 so far. It is still unclear how many — if any — of these cases are one of the variants.
Three other Laval schools — Équinoxe elementary school, École Eureka and St-Maxime high school — have shut classrooms this week, also because of suspected cases of a variant. Testing is underway.
On Sunday, public health authorities announced they were closing Fontainebleau elementary school in Blainville, north of Montreal, because tests had identified two possible cases of a variant.
In Quebec City, public health authorities are testing all 342 staff and students at Marguerite d'Youville elementary school in Cap-Rouge, where they suspect a coronavirus variant may have been circulating.
Dr. Valérie Lamarre, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Sainte-Justine hospital, said it's to be expected that the province is seeing so many cases in schools.
"Schools are the place where we still have people gathering in a group, so even though they have measures that are helping quite a bit, it's still the place where we have community spread," Lamarre said.
She added that as long as the province continues to quickly close schools when a variant case is detected, there is no reason for alarm.
When it comes to variants, experts say time is of the essence
Variants of the coronavirus pose an additional challenge to public health officials, because they are believed to be more contagious than the original strain.
Dr. Caroline Quach, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist and medical microbiologist at Sainte-Justine hospital, said it's crucial to shut down schools and classrooms the moment a variant case is suspected.
"The new variants appear to have an incubation period that's a lot shorter. That means we have less time to react," said Quach.
Several medical experts, and opposition politicians, have called on the government to make more widespread use of rapid tests in schools. But Quach said that technology requires a more targeted approach in order to be successful.
For the past month, Quach has been leading a rapid testing pilot project at two Quebec schools. The preliminary findings, she said, suggest the tests may not be helpful detecting asymptomatic carriers of the virus.
"When we use it at random, so far, we haven't found anyone [with COVID-19]," Quach said.
She believes rapid tests would be more useful when screening a classroom where cases have already been confirmed.
"When we test in these classes, we find one or two positive cases with rapid tests, later confirmed by the [polymerase chain reaction] test. So, this allows us to find them more quickly," she said.