Coast Mountains School District 82 (CMSD82) and Northern Health held a virtual town hall style question and answer session Monday, Nov. 10 to answer questions from parents and the community about COVID-19 protocols as infections skyrocket in B.C.
Superintendent Janet Meyer and Shar McCrory, board chair, facilitated the event and were joined by Northern Health keynote speakers Dr. Raina Fumerton, northwest medical health officer and Petrina Bryant, Healthy Schools and Youth regional nursing lead.
The school district shared how it and Northern Health will handle confirmed cases or school clusters of COVID-19. The virtual town hall took place amid a steep increase of COVID-19 cases across B.C., and a positive test in neighbouring School District 52 in Prince Rupert.
Before answering submitted questions, Northern Health officials provided viewers with a brief presentation about COVID-19. They highlighted the epidemiological curve of the Northern Health region, which shows more cases recently than at the start of the pandemic, which can partially be attributed to more testing.
“We have been doing a lot more testing, but at the same time that does not totally explain the rise in cases,” said Dr. Fumerton.
“We are entering the fall respiratory season and people moving indoors etcetera where we know the higher risk of transmission occurs, so hospitalizations have increased somewhat.”
In the north, the hospitalization rate has remained low compared to most of the province. Fumerton said that evidence from around the world shows that school settings are not very high risk for widespread transmission.
Petrina Bryant has worked as a contract tracer during the pandemic, and shared how that process takes place in schools. If a student or staff member has a confirmed COVID-19 case, Northern Health follows-up and the school is not notified if the individual was not infectious when they attended school. Most contacts at school do not meet the criteria to be close contacts which require prolonged time spent face to face without masks with an infected individual or direct contact with bodily fluids.
Confirmed contacts contacted by Northern Health and are asked to self-isolate for 14 days from the test exposure and are told to get tested if required. If no symptoms develop, close contacts can return to school when the self-isolation period is complete.
If an interview with Northern Health determines they were infectious while attending school or were infected at school, school leadership is notified and close contacts are asked to self-isolate and monitor symptoms. Most people in the school community will not need to self-isolate, get tested or do anything out of the ordinary.
“When schools have a solid safety plan with infection control measures in place combined with public health contract tracing that Northern Health provides in the event of a case, the transmission in schools dies out very quickly,” said Fumerton.
“On the other hand rumors and misinformation can spread very, very quickly and in some ways that’s been one of our biggest challenges.”
Q: The Public Health Agency of Canada has recently revised its guidelines to add aerosols as a route of transmission for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As such, I would like to know if contract tracing for a confirmed COVID-19 case in a classroom will be extended to include all children in the same class or cohort and not just students who sit in close proximity to the infected person?
A: (Dr. Fumerton) “The contact tracing that public health is currently doing is effective to limit the spread of COVID-19, nothing is 100 per cent perfect or 100 per cent risk-free but its not necessary to do contact tracing beyond the people who would be considered close contacts as per the BC Centre for Disease Control definition of a close contact of a confirmed case, and our experience to date has shown this.”
Q: Now that aerosols are included as a route of transmission for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, will Northern Health and CMSD82 change its recommendations for the use of masks and increased ventilation for higher risk scenarios such as music class when all kids are singing in a closed space?
A: (Bryant) “Northern Health follows the provincial COVID-19 public health guidance for K-12 schools and as we learn more about the virus the provincial health guidelines are updated to reflect current recommendations when that’s needed so [Chief Public Health Officer Bonnie Henry] is continuously reviewing what’s going on in our province and will change recommendations when it’s necessary.”
“It is still the case that most transmission is not by aerosols and the measures we know to be effective are still effective because they have been studied for COVID-19 specifically and COVID hasn’t changed so we know that existing safety plans have been sufficient to keep the risk of transmission low in schools.”
Q: The newest guidelines put forth by the Public Health Agency of Canada is to limit time spent in closed spaces, crowded places and close contact situations, while maintaining physical distancing, handwashing and the use of three-layer non-medical masks in all indoor spaces where people are around others who are not members of the their household. How is Northern Health and CMSD82 going to implement these changes into our schools?
A: (Dr. Fumerton) “Schools are controlled environments with very solid safety plans and infection control measures in place, this truly does help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the school environment. Schools across the province have been open a while now and exposures have occasionally occurred but the transmission rates by and large have been low and the same experience has been found in jurisdictions where schools have been open much longer than we have in B.C. and so I think the most important thing is that if you’re wearing a mask is that the fit of the mask is good, that you are wearing it properly and not contaminating yourself with the mask in the way you put it on and take it off.”
Q: Looking at the spread of COVID-19 in some of the schools in lower B.C. that has resulted in multiple exposure events at the same school, will siblings be asked to self-isolate if one child in the household is waiting on COVID-19 results in order to prevent the possible transmission to another class and cohort?
A: (Bryant) “No, it’s not necessary to keep siblings that don’t have any symptoms home from school while one child in the family is waiting for test results. Most of the time the results are negative for COVID-19 and we know that keeping children home from school can have negative consequences. We know the public health guidance and current health and safety plans in schools work, there has been a lot of cases in schools in Canada, in B.C. and we also have had several experiences in Northern Health and we know from our experience that in most circumstances they have led to no further spread in the school setting.”
Q: Will it be mandatory for masks to be worn in class for the two weeks after a new cohort has been established?
A: (Dr. Fumerton) “Encouraging and recommending is great and of course there are some people who for a variety of reasons, medical and otherwise are not able to wear a mask, so needing to be respectful of that and just recognizing again that schools are not the driver of our cases in B.C. and the north.”
Answers to questions that were not addressed during the session due to time constraints are available on CMSD82’s website. The entire question and answer session can be viewed on CMSD82’s YouTube channel.
Ben Bogstie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Interior News