As the number of COVID-19 cases in local schools continues to rise rapidly, Sudbury’s health unit has indicated that it is reluctant to impose stricter measures to control the spread of the virus.
Joëlle Martel, a health promoter at Public Health Sudbury and Districts, said that while health officials are certainly concerned, there is no “single factor or setting” driving the increase in cases.
The health unit plans to use multiple tools to get school cases and outbreaks under control, including enhanced COVID-19 screening for students and staff and COVID-19 vaccinations for children aged five to 11.
Public Health also plans to make an announcement later this week about targeted COVID-19 testing at schools in the Sudbury and Manitoulin districts.
Keeping kids in the classroom for in-person learning remains one of the health unit’s top priorities, however, and Martel said that there isn’t really “an appetite” provincially to shut schools down again.
“Public Health Sudbury and Districts is continuing to monitor the local situation and context. Our current and future decisions are informed by what is happening here and in consultation with provincial guidance,” she said.
“If we feel that cases are not getting under control, then we certainly could implement additional measures, but at this time, the benefits of kids going to school continue to outweigh the risks.”
Martel added that virtual learning has been difficult on kids and parents alike.
“Some of the benefits of kids being in school are things like daily routines and structure, physical activity, and social connection. All of these things contribute to their emotional and mental well-being,” she said.
“Children learn better in person with that interaction in the classroom, and while they are engaging with their peers.”
Schools also offer additional supports for families who might be struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic, like food programs, she added.
“There are also students with special needs who might need support as well. For example, I know a lot of speech therapists who work in our schools,” said Martel.
“Families might not otherwise be able to access some of these resources.”
To support in-person learning, the health unit is working closely with school boards who operate in the Sudbury and Manitoulin districts and communicating with families to offer tips on best practices.
“We meet with school boards regularly to assess their infection prevention and control measures and make sure they are being implemented effectively,” said Martel.
“We are also working to provide messaging to families to make sure that students are wearing well-fitted masks, for example, or completing symptom screening on a daily basis. We’re always trying to reinforce those messages and protective strategies.”
Making COVID-19 vaccination available to children from five to 11 is “an additional layer of protection,” said Martel.
“We have appointments for that age group as early as Friday, and we’ve had such a great response that we’ve already had to add additional bookings,” she said.
“We also know there will be some hesitancy with this age group, so we do plan to offer some virtual parent information sessions.”
Martel said that all vaccines, including this one, go through an extensive Health Canada approval process and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization issues final recommendations.
“The COVID-19 vaccine for children aged five to 11 has the same benefits as any other age group,” she said.
“It will reduce their chances of getting COVID-19, and if they do get the virus, they will be much less likely to be hospitalized or require ICU care.”
The health unit said the province has not yet issued targets in terms of vaccination coverage rates for this age group as the approval is still relatively new.
Public Health is looking into coordinating school-based vaccination clinics for specific schools in its service area.
“It will probably be schools that have a high percentage of special needs students because it might be easier for them to get the vaccine at school instead of traveling to a different location,” she said.
“We are also looking at clinics for schools in more remote locations where students might have less opportunity in the community to get the vaccine.”
When asked if the health unit is still considering targeted COVID-19 testing at local schools, Martel said that there will be an announcement later this week.
“Overall, I think we need to not lose sight of the progress we’ve made so far,” she said.
“We might not feel that we’ve made any progress right now, but we have. We have decent vaccination coverage rates, and the community has worked hard to get us here.”
Now that the holiday season is approaching, Martel said it’s more important than ever that people remain vigilant.
“It’s getting colder again, and people are moving indoors. We need to continue to monitor ourselves for symptoms, seek testing even if we experience mild symptoms, and continue practicing public health measures like mask-wearing and hand washing,” she said.
Local school boards reported 92 active cases of COVID-19 amongst students and staff at schools in the region on Wednesday.
Martel said that there are 41 schools in the Sudbury and Manitoulin districts with at least one active case of COVID-19, and there are currently 83 active student cases.
The health unit also reported 16 COVID-19 outbreaks in the school community as of the end of the day on Tuesday.
This includes 11 outbreaks at local schools, three on school buses, and two at daycares.
More information on COVID-19 outbreaks in the community is available on the health unit’s website at bit.ly/3cLocBZ.
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Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star