Some Calgary families are questioning the reliability of the how school boards and Alberta Health Services handle COVID-19 contact tracing because they’re experiencing long delays in being notified when their children are considered close contacts.
On Monday, Patrick Palardy heard from other parents that a child in his son’s Grade 1 class at Rosemont School had tested positive for COVID-19.
“The first thing we did was followup through the grapevine and got actual confirmation from the parent of the child that tested positive,” he said.
Three days later, Palardy says, they’ve yet to be notified by the school or AHS about the case — and have made the decision to self-isolate until they do.
“Our fear is that if this information isn’t able to be shared in a timely fashion, people can be spreading [the coronavirus] asymptomatically during this period with no knowledge,” he said.
“I know that a lot of families have grandparents and auxiliary family members helping with child care and pick up some stuff. And I’m sure a lot of them have pre-existing conditions. To not share that in a timely fashion feels dangerous, verging on irresponsible.”
Palardy says that when he spoke with his child’s principal on Thursday morning, he got little information.
“Essentially she was saying that she couldn’t do anything until she got, I don’t want to say permission, but something like that, from AHS to be able to share [information] with the parents,” he said.
In a letter from Western Canada High School’s principal, shared with CBC News by a parent, a number of students were notified Wednesday that they’d been identified as a close contact of a student who had COVID-19 while contagious at school on Oct. 15 and 16 — more than 10 days prior.
They were told they must now begin a period of isolation. But isolation would last for only four days and not the usual two weeks.
“Your child’s isolation life/end date is October 31,” it read.
Angela Jacobs, manager AHS’s communicable diseases control branch, says they’re trying to aim for a 48-hour turnaround time on connecting with schools once a positive case is confirmed in the school population.
“We are doing our best to reach out to the cases themselves within a 24-hour time frame, but it does take some time,” she said. “We will see that schools will sometimes know about that positive case before we’ve had a chance to connect with them.”
But AHS says with the recent surge in positive cases and outbreaks across the province, it is seeing an increased demand for contact tracing,
“As individuals are increasing the number of places they visit and people they interact with, contact tracing is becoming increasingly complex and requires additional time to complete,” an AHS spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement to CBC News.
“AHS has a task force dedicated to co-ordinating our efforts on school COVID-19 issues [and] works very closely with school superintendents and individual schools. We continue to refine processes to ensure students, parents and staff are informed of a potential exposure as soon as possible and provide them with all of the information they need.”
On Tuesday at a public meeting of the Calgary Board of Education (CBE), the superintendent of school improvement, Joanne Pittman, said the board takes direction from AHS when a positive COVID-19 case is reported.
“While we have certainly had situations where our community is informing or taking their own steps regarding positive cases, we take direction from AHS when they complete their investigation, and then move forward with that immediately upon notice,” she said.
But on Thursday, the CBE said principals were informed of a change to the process.
“Moving forward, the school will send parents a pre-notification message when a positive case is reported within a school community by a parent or staff member,” reads the emailed statement.
“Once AHS has completed its investigation, and provided direction to the school, further communication will be sent with quarantine or self-isolation direction if required.”
The Calgary Board of Education says AHS leads investigations when positive cases are confirmed in school communities and it is AHS that directs who is required to quarantine and for what period of time.
“We continue to take this direction from AHS, but this adjustment in our process responds to feedback we have heard from parents and staff around the importance of timely notification,” said the CBE. “We have confirmed this approach with AHS and received support from the zone medical officer of health.”
Mona Khouri-Akl is the mother of two students attending Bishop O’Byrne High School, which is in the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD).
Since Monday, families at the school have been informed of at least three cases in the school community.
Khouri-Akl says she’s worried information isn’t getting to families quickly enough.
“After Thanksgiving, we knew of a student who went into isolation by herself and requested the COVID testing because she was seeing symptoms and she tested positive,” she said. “She did notify the school, but the school took no step. Knowing that several people from the school were close contact.”
“She’s been two weeks in isolation since Thanksgiving and then she gets a call from the school this week telling her to be in isolation because she has a confirmed case in one of her classes,” she said. “I mean, I can’t understand how come the school does not track properly if a student informs the school they are in isolation for two weeks. Why is she being notified to be in isolation again?”
Khouri-Akl says that in a few instances this week her kids have known about the cases in the school through word of mouth before parents and families are getting any information from the school.
An emailed statement to CBC News from a CCSD spokesperson says the first case at Bishop O’Byrne was diagnosed on Oct. 24, five days ago, and that the school was notified late Sunday night.
Two letters from the school, supplied to CBC by Khouri-Akl, went home on Monday indicating two cases had been identified. A third letter went home on Tuesday notifying parents of a third case.
“I’ve heard we have a fourth case confirmed at the school and we did not receive any letter from the school,” she said.
But later in the day on Thursday, following her interview with CBC, Khouri-Akl received another letter from the school indicating there were now six confirmed cases at Bishop O’Byrne, putting it on the province’s watch list.
It said that there are now over 300 student and approximately 16 staff members self-isolating. The school joined the ranks fo St. Francis in making the decision earlier in the week to end fall athletic programs and discontinue school club gatherings.
“Until we see a drop in positive cases at Bishop O’Byrne,” wrote principal Monique Baker.
Khouri-Akl says she was also disappointed that the letters from the school did not indicated when the infected students had been in school while contagious.
“We need more transparency with us parents. They’re not being transparent with us,” she said. “I don’t care about knowing which students got it but we need proper information to assess the situation ourselves and make the proper decision.”
The Calgary Catholic School District says it notifies parents about their child’s return to school date, but not the date of exposure.
“AHS works with the individual families considered close contacts.”
If it is identified that the case is a student or staff member who was at school while infectious, AHS says it notifies the superintendent and school administration.
“AHS public health works with schools to determine which students and/or staff have been in close contact with a positive case. Public health then notifies all of those identified close contacts of the positive case, via email if the school has provided email addresses to AHS. Where email addresses are not available, AHS instead calls all identified close contacts.”
Recently, AHS said it implemented an SMS text system to quickly notify individuals of their positive COVID-19 test results.
“This means that people are getting test results 24/7 and receive the instructions to immediately isolate. As such, when students test positive for COVID-19, parents often receive a text message ahead of being phoned by AHS,” reads the AHS statement.
“Prior to receiving a call from AHS, schools who hear of a positive result can also get support by contacting AHS’s co-ordinated early response and identification line at 1-844-343-0971 or their established local public health contact.”
On Thursday afternoon, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said starting Monday the province will implement a new symptom list for all Albertans under 18.
Runny nose and sore throat will be removed from the list of symptoms that require mandatory isolation for children. But Hinshaw said that won’t apply to people who have had a known exposure.
The loss of taste and smell will also be added to the list of symptoms.