(Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)
Students in Ottawa with just a single potential symptom of COVID-19, such as a runny nose or unexplained nausea, will now have to stay home and be tested for the illness.
Effective Monday, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) has updated daily screening criteria that children and teens must meet before going to school in person. OPH is asking parents to keep their children home and get them tested if they have even one of the less common symptoms of COVID-19.
A parent filling out the online screening tool who checks the box that their child has a "stuffy and/or runny nose" or "nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea" will get this message in response:
"We recommend that your child goes to a COVID-19 assessment centre or care clinic to get tested as soon as possible. Please do not attend school/child care and stay at home while awaiting test results. Household contacts must also isolate at home until test results are received."
Students who have these symptoms due to pre-existing or ongoing conditions, such as allergies, will be allowed to return to school.
Testing down among children
According to OPH, the change to one-symptom screening for students came last week at the direction of the province's chief medical officer of health. School boards were also informed.
"A more cautious approach has been adopted in response to the new variants of the COVID-19 virus that have been identified within Ontario," according to an emailed statement from an OPH spokesperson. "The new COVID-19 variants transmit more easily, therefore additional precautions are needed to prevent the spread within the community."
The daily count of new COVID-19 cases has been rising in Ottawa over the past week, but OPH says fewer children are being tested at the city's COVID-19 assessment centres.
Dr. Ken Farion, medical and operations lead for Ottawa's COVID-19 testing task force, says there's still a relatively high level of COVID-19 in community. He's concerned that because children often display minor symptoms of COVID-19, they could transmit it unknowingly.
"Until we really see that the total daily numbers in Ottawa are like 15, 18 consistently and that we've really understood and controlled where the concern about the variants of concern are, then we aren't yet testing enough and finding enough cases," said Farion.
"So I'm happy that we are are being a bit more aggressive with testing and it will give our schools a better sense that, in fact, everything is good."
On the first day under the more stringent screening rules, the number of children requiring tests increased sharply. On Monday, 452 children were tested at the Brewer Arena assessment centre, compared to 175 on Sunday, 182 on Saturday and 154 on Friday.
Back to stricter screening
The updated screening protocol for students is similar to the one instituted last fall, when many children returned to school. Within weeks, public health officials had to relax the screening criteria after COVID-19 testing centres became overwhelmed by families needing tests, with hours-long lineups and days of waiting for results.
At the time, OPH changed the rules so children with Tier 1 symptoms — fever, cough or sore throat — had to stay home and get tested, while those with just one of the less common symptoms, such as a runny nose, still had to stay home, but could return to school without getting tested if the symptom cleared up within 24 hours.
Now, OPH has returned to those earlier standards.
But unlike last September, when single-symptom testing led to long waits for both testing and lab results, officials are promising that the process will be much smoother now.
Both testing and laboratory capacity has been increased since the fall, and an appointment system has been introduced.
Farion said parents should be able to book at a testing slot for the same day, or the next morning. Results should be reported within 48 hours.