British Columbia

Parents worry health authorities aren't doing enough to stop COVID in schools after West Van exposure events

An open letter with more than 900 signatures has been sent to B.C.'s provincial health officer and the chief medical officer of Vancouver Coastal Health asking them to improve the strategy for responding to positive COVID-19 cases in schools.

Open letter to health officers says contact tracing is taking too long after positive cases are confirmed

About a third of B.C. children have returned to school for in-class instruction. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

An open letter with more than 900 signatures has been sent to B.C.'s provincial health officer and the chief medical officer of Vancouver Coastal Health asking them to improve the strategy for responding to positive COVID-19 cases in schools.

The letter was organized by parents of children at Caulfeild Elementary in West Vancouver after two exposure events last month resulted in several cases of infection.

Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) says potential exposure to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 occurred Sept. 16-18 and Sept. 21-24. However, as per provincial guidelines, the health authority does not specify how many individuals tested positive and which cohorts were affected.

Coralynn Gehl, who launched the open letter, says as a result parents started letting each other know which of their children had tested positive for COVID-19. She says many parents decided to keep their kids at home until test results came back, even if their children weren't part of the affected cohorts.

"My feeling was I would keep [my son] at home and just wait and see if there were any more positive test results and then decide where to go from there," said Gehl.

According to the parents Gehl has been in touch with, there are 18 positive cases associated with a cluster in a Grade 2 class at Caulfeild. She says that includes students in the class as well as parents, siblings and grandparents.

Gehl says she and other parents at the school are worried contact tracing and notifying close contacts of people who have tested positive is taking too long. The open letter asks that as soon as a child tests positive, their entire cohort is required to self-isolate until contact tracing can determine who can go back to school.

"It makes more sense to me that as soon as there's a positive test, Vancouver Coastal Health contacts the entire cohort and says 'everyone needs to stay home until we figure out who's actually at risk,'" Gehl said.

The letter says siblings of students in the affected cohort should also be required to self-isolate so they don't risk transmitting to other cohorts or other schools.

VCH currently lists 14 schools that have had exposure events since students returned to classes in September.

'When people have been notified, transmission has stopped,' said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on positive tests in schools. 'We have to balance that with the disruption of students for no reason.' (Mike McArthur/CBC)

No outbreaks in B.C. schools

When asked about the Caulfeild cluster on Monday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry acknowledged that there had been some early miscommunication about exposure events, but that overall the current strategy has prevented COVID-19 outbreaks at B.C. schools.

"When people have been notified, transmission has stopped," she said. "We have to balance that with the disruption of students for no reason."

Henry further defended the province's contact-tracing strategy In a joint statement with B.C.'s deputy health minister on Monday.

"The work of public health teams throughout the province has been extremely effective, and contact tracing has shown the majority of new cases are connected to a known case or cluster, which means uncontrolled transmission is limited," the statement said.

"Additionally, much like other aspects of our society that are now open, we have seen exposures in our schools. However, importantly, schools are not a major source of transmission."

But Gehl says it was the actions of parents going beyond public health guidelines that helped prevent further transmission.

"The fact of the matter is, the parents in that class collectively decided to keep the siblings of those kids at home," said Gehl.

She wonders why the number of positive cases is made public for outbreaks at long-term care centres and at food processing facilities but not for cases in schools.

Henry has repeatedly said health authorities are not sharing the number of cases in schools. 

"We have to find that balance that doesn't identify people and make sure that people feel confident that they're going to be protected if they have been a case, if there have been exposures," she said.

"Some students and teachers and staff who have shared information have been recipients of nasty notes and bad behaviour and that makes people very concerned and afraid to share their information and in many cases reluctant to go for testing."

With files from Yvette Brend

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