‘Inconvenient’ measures around school COVID-19 cases necessary for now, Albertans told

Alberta has adopted a “very cautious” approach to reporting COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, and has so far not found a single case that was transmitted within a school setting, says the province’s top doctor.

As the school year progresses and health officials learn more about how the novel coronavirus spreads, guidelines for self-isolation may be loosened or otherwise changed, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said Monday.

At present, when a student tests positive, the typical approach is to require all classmates to stay home for 14 days, Hinshaw told a news conference.

“I recognize that this is very inconvenient for families, and I regret the impact that this is having on those students and their families,” she said.

“The reason for this approach is to gather information about who is most at risk of getting COVID-19 from a school exposure. This will enable us to target exclusions in the future to only those who are most at risk.”

For now, the exclusion guidelines are broad to minimize risk of transmission and to evaluate the public health definition of what constitutes a close contact, she said.

Alberta reported one more COVID-19 death over the weekend and 418 new cases of the illness.

The latest numbers show 105 new cases on Friday, 173 on Saturday and 140 on Sunday.

The most recent death involved a woman in her 70s from Edmonton zone who was not a resident in continuing care.

Hinshaw said 35 Alberta schools have reported COVID-19 cases, with a total of 42 cases.

With community transmission levels higher in the past few weeks, it is not surprising to see cases in schools, she said.

Outbreaks in schools are declared whenever there are two or more cases in a single school.

That is “a very cautious use of this term” outbreak, Hinshaw said.

None of the 42 cases identified so far have been transmitted within the school setting, she said.

“This means the virus was brought into the school.”

Even with the current cautious approach, it is likely that as the school year continues there will be examples of transmission within schools, Hinshaw said.

“Our goal is to keep transmission as low as possible but we cannot prevent it entirely without imposing restrictions that themselves have harmful impacts. Living with COVID-19 means seeking balance with limiting the harms of COVID and limiting the harms of COVID restrictions.

“Another toll on Albertans has been increased anxiety as we are all faced with living in a time of uncertainty. We have heard that this is impacting students and teachers with intense scrutiny on school reopening.”

On Sunday, new school outbreaks were reported by school officials at Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton, Lester B. Pearson High School in Calgary and at Auburn Bay School, a K-4 school in Calgary.

Three other Alberta schools reported outbreaks last week.

Laboratories across the province completed more than 46,000 tests over that same three-day period, including 18,919 on Saturday.

“I want to take a moment to recognize the significant efforts made by Alberta Precision Laboratories, Alberta Health Services teams over the weekend to bring in extra staff for surge capacity to tackle the backlog of samples,” Hinshaw said.

Even so, Albertans should not expect the system can continue to conduct 19,000 tests every day, she said, though reaching that level on a “surge” basis for short periods of time may be necessary in the fall.

What it does show is the dedication to help reduce lab testing turnaround times. 

Negative results for Misericordia staff

At the Misericordia Community Hospital in west Edmonton, staff who went into self-isolation after possible exposure to the virus at a social gathering have tested negative.

“All staff that were asked to self-isolate following the event have tested negative and are cleared to return to work,” a spokesperson for Covenant Health said Monday in a statement.

The hospital reopened its doors three weeks ago following a COVID-19 outbreak that began in July. In total, 58 cases of COVID-19 were linked with the outbreak, including 11 deaths.

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