6 coronavirus variant cases identified at 5 Alberta schools — all in Calgary

As cases of the significantly more contagious coronavirus variants begin to spread in Alberta, some parents and advocates are calling for greater transparency about which schools are seeing cases.

There are now six people who have attended five schools while infectious with a variant in the province — all in Calgary. 

Of the five Calgary schools, CBC has confirmed three: single cases have been identified at Henry Wise Wood High School and St. Gregory School, and two cases at St. Francis High School. 

Holly Howe learned last week about the variant case at Wise Wood, her daughter’s school, from an email sent by the school’s principal. 

That email was sent Feb. 5, after the student tested positive on Jan. 17.

“That’s definitely a concern, knowing that the kids can’t be adequately socially distanced in classrooms because they have classrooms at the high school level usually of between 24 and 40 students,” she said.

“It’s just that you’ve got all these bodies in classrooms at the same time.”

All parents aren’t notified — just close contacts

Wing Li with Support our Students Alberta, a public education advocacy group that has been closely tracking coronavirus cases in schools, says the group has heard from many concerned parents. The lack of available information is compounding those worries.

“They want to know where these variants are being found, what areas of the city. And the fact that the government is withholding information is adding to that anxiety and mistrust,” Li said.

Li said without adequate information, rumours about cases are spreading in school communities, increasing the stigma for those who get sick and making it harder for many to make informed decisions. 

“This is all very concerning …. let’s remember, there are there are elderly people who work at school. It’s not just children.”

The spread of the highly transmissible COVID-19 variant first found in the U.K. has some Canadian doctors wondering if our current distancing recommendations are enough. 2:02

Alberta Health Services said its dedicated variant case team is made up of experienced case investigators who work quickly to identify each case’s contacts. 

Once a variant case is identified, AHS only notifies parents of that student and any of the students’ close contacts — not all parents at a school. 

“The fact that a parent in a classroom next door might not know is a matter of, like, blocking public health information. Then parents can’t make … informed decisions,” Li said. 

In-class spread in 77 schools, no variant spread yet

Currently, 13 per cent of the province’s schools are on alert or have outbreaks, with 866 total cases. In-school transmission is believed to have occurred in 77 schools.

But Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said no in-class transmission of variant cases has been reported so far. 

“At this time, there’s no reason to believe that other students in the schools that aren’t identified as a contact — or others around those schools — have any additional risk from these particular cases,” she said during Tuesday’s provincial COVID-19 update. 

“Based on our current information to date … it appears that the precautions that are in place in schools are protective against in-class spread of these particular viruses.” 

Both Hoye and Li are pushing for asymptomatic testing in schools, a measure they say is urgently needed to identify cases before they can spread within a group of students. 

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Tuesday that the province is working to develop rapid, asymptomatic screening for schools. 

“We’re working hard every day to increase testing here in Alberta,” he said. 

There are currently 104 cases of the variants of concern in Alberta, 57 of which are in Calgary. There are a total of 5,831 active cases of COVID-19 in the province.

Hinshaw said it’s important to keep the numbers in context and to understand what they indicate about the spread of the virus.

“For context, the first variant case in Alberta was identified retrospectively in a sample originally taken on Dec. 15 from a returning traveller,” she said. “From that day until now, there have been 104 positive variant cases identified among all the samples that have been taken.”

During that same time, more than 43,000 cases of COVID-19 have been detected in the province, which means variant cases made up one-quarter of one per cent of all the cases identified since Dec. 15.

“This does not in any way minimize the threat that these variants pose or the impact they will have if we let them spread widely,” Hinshaw said. “However, so far, variants are still very rare and we are working hard to keep it that way.”

Both the Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic School District said they are following AHS protocols. 

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