UPDATE: This story was updated at 9:22 p.m. Oct. 27 with new information from Fraser Health and the New Westminster school district.
More COVID-19 exposures have been reported at New Westminster schools – this time at New Westminster Secondary School and Glenbrook Middle School.
The notifications have gone up on the Fraser Health school exposures website.
An error on the website (which has since been corrected) had initially listed exposures at NWSS on Oct. 8 and 9, but, in fact, there were no COVID-19 exposures on those dates. However, parents received two separate early notification letters from NWSS regarding exposures at the high school: the first for an exposure on Oct. 14, 15 and 16, and the second for Oct. 20 and 21.
The Glenbrook Middle School exposure also happened on Oct. 14, 15 and 16.
“An exposure is defined as a single person with a lab-confirmed COVID-19 infection who attended school during their infectious period,” explained an email from Fraser Health in response to a Record inquiry. “The date of exposure represents the dates that the individual was at school before being advised to self-isolate. There is no ongoing risk from those cases at the school after the exposure dates, as that case is isolating.”
School and health officials do not provide any further public details about a person who tests positive for COVID-19 (such as whether it was a student or teacher, or what class or division they are in) for privacy reasons.
Once someone in a school community has a confirmed positive COVID test, Fraser Health undertakes contact tracing to determine who, if anyone, was in contact with the affected person at the school in question while they were infectious. Health officials determine if anyone in either school is a close contact who needs to self-isolate. Other staff and/or students may be asked to self-monitor for symptoms while still continuing to attend school.
Karim Hachlaf, superintendent of the New Westminster school district, noted that so far in New Westminster there have been two instances where Fraser Health has identified a group of people that needed to self-monitor for symptoms.
“We have not needed to do, thankfully, the self-isolation request,” he said at the Oct. 27 school board meeting.
Some parents had raised questions on social media about the lag time between the COVID-19 exposure and the early notification letter – noting that 10 days had passed between the Oct. 16 exposure date and Oct. 26, when the first letter was received by families.
In response to a Record inquiry about timing, Fraser Health noted the following:
“The school exposures webpage is updated daily with the latest information, and individual school exposure listings are removed 14 days after the COVID-19 exposure date, corresponding to the incubation period of the virus. Fraser Health posts public exposure notifications to reach a larger audience as quickly as we can. Sometimes, a case will have been tested several days after their last day at school, and therefore the exposure notification will be dated back several days.”
Fraser Health also reiterated that an “exposure” notice does not mean there is a high risk to students at the school.
“When cases are classified as an exposure, the risks for transmission remains low,” the Fraser Health statement said. “Schools remain safe for children and school staff. In the event of a school exposure, unless you have been contacted by public health to stay home, your child can continue to attend school.”
That’s a message that provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has been consistently delivering in response to concerns over COVID-19 in schools.
In her regular briefing on Oct. 22, Henry noted that, as of that date, there had been 213 reported school exposures across B.C. but the vast majority of those had not led to transmission within schools.
A few of the reports have involved “clusters,” meaning more than one person in the school confirmed at the same time.
The first reported outbreak at a B.C. school, at École de l’Anse-au-sable in Kelowna, was reported last week; an outbreak means that COVID-19 transmission is known to have happened within the school setting.
“While it is obviously not what any of us want to see, it is not unexpected, as we know that COVID-19 is still circulating in our communities, and we know that is reflected in what is happening in our school communities as well,” Henry said.
“While it’s concerning that we have an outbreak, what I think is positive about this is that we have been monitoring all of the exposure events, and we have had very little transmission in the schools, and public health has been working with the school communities across the province to keep it that way.”
Henry reiterated at her briefing on Oct. 26 that there has still been only one school outbreak.
So far, New Westminster has yet to see any clusters or outbreaks; exposures have been contained to individual reported cases only.
Aside from the newest cases, two exposures have also been reported at Fraser River Middle School, and one each at Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary and Queensborough Middle School.
At the Oct. 27 board meeting, trustee Mary Lalji warned the district needs to remain vigilant about its COVID-19 procedures as B.C. is now officially in the second wave of the pandemic and cases are on the rise.
“Particularly as we are entering cold and flu season, we may need to look at adapting to a new reality and prepare for what is to come,” she said.
Lalji raised Richard McBride Elementary School – where construction of a new school has substantially reduced the size of the property – as a particular concern since parents are not able to maintain physical distance during pickup and drop-off times.
Hachlaf agreed with Lalji that, with cold and flu season at hand, the concern is valid and the district will need to be ready to adapt accordingly.