Despite fears, frustrations, Alberta school year off to ‘positive’ start, top doctor says

Alberta’s top doctor tried to reassure parents on Monday that the province’s schools are safe and asked for patience as her team works to find solutions to a complex public health problem that changes by the day.

While two schools are now under the “watch” category and 17 others have outbreaks of two to four cases, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said she was pleased with what she called a “positive” start to a school year unlike any in history.

“While I know that the safety of schools is of utmost importance to all of us, it is important to remember that only three per cent of all schools in the province have had any COVID-19 exposure to date,” Hinshaw said Monday at a news conference.

“And of all those schools that have had one or more exposures, transmission has only been identified in about three per cent of those.

“So overall, only just over one school in 1,000 has had a transmission episode in the last three weeks. We will continue to monitor closely as always, but this is a positive start.”

There are about 2,500 schools in Alberta.

In-school transmission

Hinshaw said her department has identified two more, Vimy Ridge in Edmonton and Springfield elementary in Peace River, where in-school transmission has likely occurred.

On Friday, the first such case in Alberta was reported at Waverley School in Edmonton.

“As I stressed on Friday, this is not unexpected and is not a cause for alarm,” Hinshaw said at her news conference. “As we have seen transmission in other settings, we will see some cases where this happens in classrooms. We are working with schools and Alberta Health Services to keep these numbers as small as possible, and prevent broad spread within a school.”

Two schools in Alberta, St. Wilfrid in Calgary and Vimy Ridge in Edmonton, are under watch status, which means they have outbreaks of five or more cases.

“The only thing this reflects is the number of cases, not ongoing risk,” Hinshaw said of the Vimy Ridge situation.

Edmonton Public Schools on Monday provided information on COVID-19 cases in 15 schools. A total of 545 students and 48 staff members have been sent home from those schools to self-isolate for 14 days, the school board said in a statement.

The small number cases reported in schools have caused wider disruptions, Hinshaw said, since entire classes are often sent home when a single student tests positive.

“I understand that’s very disruptive for families,” she said. “And of course the numbers of staff and students who are isolating at this time, each one of those numbers represents inconvenience for those individuals. And my conclusion that the first three weeks have had a positive overall trajectory is not to minimize the impact that each individual exposure has had.”

Majority of school cases acquired elsewhere

But Hinshaw stressed that in the vast majority of cases linked to schools the illness was acquired elsewhere in the community.

Since April, cases among young people have fluctuated along with overall community transmission, she said.

“So while absolutely there is a significant impact on parents and teachers and families when there is an infectious case in a school, what we are not seeing right now, and of course we’re monitoring in case that changes, but we’re not seeing a significant onward spread in a school.”

As the province gathers more data it will be possible, she said, to better target close contacts of school cases, so fewer students will have to be sent home as a precaution.

“At some point in the future, I would say within the next few weeks, we should have enough data to understand how to target those close contacts, so there will be fewer families impacted by those exclusions. But again, right now, we are taking a cautious approach because we don’t want to see schools become a source of transmission.

“There may be some families that the right decision for them is to consider other options. But I would ask families to remain patient, to stick with us for the next few weeks, so that we can target our approaches based on our own data.”

Latest numbers

Alberta conducted almost 35,000 COVID-19 tests over the weekend and reported a total of 358 new cases of the illness.

The daily breakdown of those numbers was:

  • Friday, Sept. 18, 119 new cases, 12,451 tests completed.
  • Saturday, Sept. 19, 102 new cases, 9,748 tests completed.
  • Sunday, Sept. 20, 137 new cases, 12,760 tests completed.

The one additional death reported over the weekend was a patient at the Foothills Hospital in Calgary.

By the end of day on Sunday there were 1,459 active cases in the province, an increase of 35 since that last update. The regional breakdown of those active cases was:

  • Edmonton zone: 747
  • Calgary zone: 462
  • North zone: 181
  • South zone: 45
  • Central zone: 20
  • Unknown: four

The Edmonton zone accounts for more than half of the current active cases, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said Monday.

About half of all active cases in Edmonton are people who were close contacts of a confirmed case, Hinshaw said, while about one-third of the cases were from an unknown source.

“We’re also looking to see if there are any trends in those individuals, to see if there are any particular activities that seem to be driving the majority of the cases,” she said.

Much of the transmission seems to be linked to social events, she said, and there have been a number of workplace outbreaks in the last several days.

She said there is a popular misconception that people who are in a workplace together are a cohort.

“I’m wanting to remind people that even in a workplace, that there should be distancing, masking, symptom screening happening to make sure that we are minimizing transmission in those settings.”

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