Vancouver Island schools will likely see rise in COVID-19 exposures, authorities warn parents and staff

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The Island Health Authority is asking students and staff to consider wearing masks at all times indoors, including when seated apart from others, as well as outdoors when they are close to others. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
The Island Health Authority is asking students and staff to consider wearing masks at all times indoors, including when seated apart from others, as well as outdoors when they are close to others. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Vancouver Island health authorities are warning parents and staff to expect significant numbers of exposures at schools in the coming weeks as cases of COVID-19 rise in the region.

On Sunday, a letter from the Island's COVID-19 rapid response team warned that the region has seen a higher number of cases in the past few weeks, with many of those cases reporting higher numbers of social contacts and attending events while they were infectious.

Cases are also rising among children who are returning to school this week, says the letter, which also encourages students and staff to wear masks indoors at all times.

"This past few weeks may have been quiet as schools have been heading into or returning from spring break. However, all signs indicate that there will be significant numbers of exposures at schools in the weeks to come," it says.

The letter asks parents to keep their children at home if they notice even mild symptoms, and to get them and any other symptomatic family members tested, especially if they have travelled during spring break.

Dr. Richard Stanwick, chief medical health officer for Island Health, said Monday during an interview on CBC's On The Island, that had Island schools not been closed for spring break, there would have been between six and eight exposures per day over the past four days.

"If we start climbing … we are going to be stretched in terms of our resources," said Stanwick.

He said it is very likely the Island is going to experience "a fairly significant introduction" of B117, the variant first detected in the U.K., due to people travelling from the Lower Mainland over spring break.

"The bottom line is, we just have to get people immunized," said Stanwick.

More mask-wearing encouraged

In response to the increased exposures, school districts are increasing cleaning at schools and signage to encourage distancing. They are also increasing their monitoring of symptoms and offering testing to school community members as appropriate.

The latest B.C. Centre for Disease Control guidelines from Feb. 4 mandate that students from kindergarten to Grade 12 wear masks while indoors except when sitting at their desks.

However, the letter from Island Health asks students and staff to consider wearing masks at all times indoors, including when seated apart from others, as well as outdoors when they are close to others.

While the risk of outdoor transmission is low, some experts worry that more transmissible variants that have begun spreading in the province require extra precautions outside.

On Saturday, the Surrey school district expanded its mask mandate to require all students in grades 4-12 to wear a mask at their desk.

Island Health is also asking families to reduce their social contacts and activities.

"We know that schools offer very significant health and wellness benefits, physically, socially and emotionally," the letter states.

"We are working hard to ensure school environments remain COVID safe, to keep Island children in school."

Whenever a child who attended school while infectious tests positive, they and their close contacts are instructed to isolate for 14 days.