Back-to-back exposure notices at Glenbrook Middle School and a new exposure at Richard McBride Elementary join a growing list of February COVID-19 cases in New Westminster schools.
Exposure notifications at Glenbrook Middle School for Feb. 11 and 12 follow earlier notifications covering Feb. 8 to 10 and Feb. 1 to 5 – meaning at least one person with COVID-19 was at the middle school every school day for the first two weeks of February.
Richard McBride Elementary School families also received a notice this morning (Feb. 22) of an exposure at the Sapperton school on Feb. 10, 11 and 12.
New Westminster Secondary School families have also received multiple, previously reported, exposure notices in February, covering the dates of Feb. 1, 3, 4, 5 and 8.
An “exposure” means someone who has since been found to have COVID-19 was at the school during their potentially infectious period.
Under the new Fraser Health notification process launched this week, any case that’s directly attached to a specific class or cohort will see “self-monitor” letters issued to other members of that class/cohort.
Fraser Health will also continue to directly contact anyone who is deemed a close contact of the case, with instructions to self-monitor or self-isolate, as required.
COVID-19 VARIANTS IN SURREY, DELTA SCHOOLS
The new exposures come against a backdrop of heightened concern over the presence of COVID-19 variants in schools.
Fraser Health (which covers the region from Burnaby to Boston Bar, including New Westminster) announced on Sunday that it’s working closely with the Surrey and Delta school districts and with an independent school in Surrey around exposures involving one of the variant strains of COVID.
“Only those staff and students who have been identified as close contacts need to be tested and have been contacted,” said a press release from Fraser Health.
“The schools will remain open. Fraser Health is investigating all cases, and, to date, most appear to be linked to community transmissions.
“As this is a variant that is new to our communities and more easily transmissible, Fraser Health is working to identify any further connected variant cases to ensure immediate isolation and case management to prevent further transmission.”
The latest crop of variant cases includes Woodward Hill Elementary School, A.H.P. Matthew Elementary School, Tamanawis Secondary School, James Ardiel Elementary School and Surrey Traditional Elementary School in the Surrey school district, the independent Gobind Sarvar School in Surrey, and Hellings Elementary School in the Delta school district.
They follow an earlier exposure involving a variant of concern at Garibaldi Secondary School in Maple Ridge three weeks ago.
So far, no known variants of concern have been linked to New Westminster school cases.
‘LESS ROOM FOR ERROR’
At a provincial briefing on Friday, Feb. 19, deputy provincial health officer Dr. Réka Gustafson reiterated a point frequently made by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry: that increased exposure numbers in schools are tied to rising case numbers in the community.
“When there are higher cases in the community, that’s when you’re going to get higher rates of notification in schools,” Gustafson said.
Gustafson said more than 90% of exposure notifications in schools do not lead to a secondary case in any other contacts.
She also said the province had no plans to change its public health orders or guidelines in the face of the spread of the variant strains. She said the strategies currently in place continue to be effective against the variants but with “less room for error.”
“What we know is that a higher proportion of contacts tend to actually develop COVID-19, … which means that it’s really not a question of doing something different; it’s just make sure that we absolutely have to do our very best to follow the measures and also to really do excellent case and contact management,” she said.
Gustafson stressed that anyone identified as a contact of someone with COVID-19 who is asked to self-isolate must strictly adhere to public health direction.
“If you’ve been asked to self-isolate, that is a really, really serious and important recommendation because the probability that you will actually develop COVID-19 is higher with the new variant than it was previously,” she said.
TEACHERS’ UNION WANTS MORE ACTION
The B.C. Teachers’ Federation wants the province to take stronger action now that so many variant cases have shown up in schools.
The union says school districts need the authority to go above and beyond existing school safety guidelines when necessary.
“When there is a high rate of COVID-19 within a community, a school district should be able to make regional or site-based enhancements to the safety protocols,” the teachers’ union said in a statement. “Those enhancements include mandating masks everywhere in specific schools, including at elementary schools, and making changes to schedules or online learning access to reduce density and increase physical distancing.”
The union also asked for more widespread rapid testing when a COVID-19 variant case appears in schools.
“This is not the time to be conservative with testing. Everyone connected to a class with a COVID-19 variant exposure should receive a rapid test. This could help find more cases and reduce the stress and anxiety that is rapidly rising,” the statement said.