Growing time lag in COVID-19 school reporting raises concern in New West

NOTE: This story was updated Nov. 23 with new information.

There’s been a growing time lag in reporting COVID-19 cases in New Westminster schools – but the delay isn’t coming from the school district.

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Karim Hachlaf, school district superintendent, addressed the issue at the school board operations committee meeting Nov. 17. He said the community has noticed a “communication lag” in receiving early notification letters about COVID-19 in schools.

As per provincial protocol, once a COVID-19 case is identified in a person associated with a school (staff or student), Fraser Health takes the lead on both identifying contacts of that person and working with the school district to notify the school community of the case.

All members of a school community receive what are known as “early notification letters” informing them of the case and what dates that person may have been in the school while infectious. Health officials then follow up with contact tracing and determine whether anyone else needs to self-monitor or self-isolate as a result of their potential exposure.

But, with case numbers surging in the Fraser Health region, the process has been slowed down.

“Fraser Health has dealt with a vast increase in volume, and that has had an impact in the communication turn-around,” Hachlaf said. “Sometimes we’re getting those letters a few days later, and that has caused concerns.”

The data bears out those concerns. A look at exposure dates in school cases versus the dates of early notification letters shows a growing gap between the two.

Early in the school year, COVID-19 exposures were found to have occurred at Fraser River Middle School and New Westminster Secondary School on Sept. 15, 16 and 17. Early notification letters went out Sept. 21.Similarly, an exposure at Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary on Sept. 24 and 25 was communicated to families in an early notification letter Sept. 28.

The three most recent exposures, however, have taken considerably longer.

On Nov. 18, parents at three New Westminster schools received early notification letters related to exposures that happened as early as Nov. 9: Lord Tweedsmuir, where the potentially infectious person was in the school Nov. 9 through 13; NWSS, where the person was in the school Nov. 9; and Richard McBride, where the person was in the school Nov. 9 and 10.

Among the largest time gaps so far have been around exposures that occurred on Oct. 30 at two schools. A letter to Lord Tweedsmuir families about the exposure went out Nov. 9, while another at Queen Elizabeth went out Nov. 10.

Another recent case with a long time lag came at Fraser River Middle School, where an exposure was reported on Nov. 6 but not posted to the Fraser Health school exposures website until Nov. 20 (where it only remained for one day, as the 14-day notification window had then passed).

Hachlaf said he’s aware that Fraser Health has been working “around the clock” and doing everything it can to provide timely communication.

“We continue to support them in every way we can,” Hachlaf said.

He noted that, since the beginning, the school district has turned around notification to families as fast as it can once the health authority provides official notice – always on the same day.

“When we have that communication from Fraser Health, we are turning that out as efficiently as possible within that same day,” he said.

The communication challenges have led the school district to revise its notification process to families. Up until now, Hachlaf noted, the school district has provided cover letters to families regarding COVID-19 exposures in schools, with further information from Fraser Health attached.

“We wanted to put our stamp on it and let our community know what was happening,” he said.

From now on, however, the school district will only provide its own cover letter to a school community in the case of first-time notifications. If a school community has received a previous early notification letter, then the district will simply pass on the correspondence from Fraser Health.

“We think that’ll help with some redundancies in communication and, frankly, less confusion about who the notice is coming from,” Hachlaf said.

Concerns about the delay in notification aren’t unique to New Westminster, as parents in other Lower Mainland school districts have raised similar concerns.

Fraser Health chief medical health officer Dr. Elizabeth Brodkin addressed the issue at a teleconference earlier in November, noting timelines can vary “significantly” depending on the case.

“From the time the case becomes symptomatic to the time the case goes and gets tested until the time that we actually receive the results is actually a number of days,” she said. “Then we need to interview the case and ensure that they’re doing what they need to do, and from there we go on to identify the contacts. So this process sometimes is very simple and happens very quickly but at other times can be quite difficult and complex, perhaps because the telephone numbers that we have for the contacts are incorrect, perhaps because of language barriers or perhaps because of the stigma that’s associated with infection that means some people just don’t want to be found.”

Fraser Health CEO Dr. Victoria Lee said it’s important to remember people who contract COVID-19 “aren’t immediately infectious.”

“It takes time for the virus to incubate, often five to nine days before a person becomes infectious,” she said.

- With files from Cornelia Naylor

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