British Columbia

Further testing finds COVID-19 variant from United Kingdom in more B.C. schools

Students or staff at seven public schools in British Columbia have tested positive for the faster-spreading COVID-19 variant first discovered in the United Kingdom, officials said Sunday.

Variant now confirmed at 6 schools in Surrey, 1 in Delta

Illustration of the architecture of cells and biomaterials of the novel coronavirus, first detected in Wuhan, China, in 2019. New variants of the virus have been detected in B.C. schools. (Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM/CDC/)

Health officials in B.C. are working to stay on top of a growing number of positive tests for the faster-spreading COVID-19 variant first discovered in the United Kingdom.

On Saturday, the Surrey School District announced positive cases in three schools. On Sunday three additional schools were added to that list along with one in Delta.

The seven schools involved in Surrey are James Ardiel Elementary, Surrey Traditional Elementary School, Woodward Hill Elementary, A.H.P. Matthew Elementary, Tamanawis Secondary School and Gobind Sarvar School, which is an independent school in the city.

The school in Delta is Hellings Elementary School.

Earlier Sunday Kwantlen Park Secondary in Surrey was listed by Fraser Health as having an exposure event involving the variant, but was later deleted from the list.

A statement from the Fraser Health authority says it is working closely to manage exposures at schools in Surrey and one in the Delta School District.

A statement from the Surrey School District to parents says the strain detected at two of the schools was connected to positive cases dating back to Jan. 26 because testing for the variants takes longer than the standard COVID-19 test.

The three-week delay is too long, said Sarah Otto, a professor in evolutionary biology at the University of B.C.

"We expect it to double every eight to 10 days, and so for every eight- to 10-day delay there's potentially twice as many other people who have caught it and not know about it.''

Stopping further transmission

The Fraser Health statement says it is working to identify any more connected variant cases to ensure immediate isolation and case management to stop further transmission.

"The variant strain can transmit more quickly and easily but does not seem to cause more severe illness, nor interfere with the effectiveness of vaccines, nor affect our ability to test for the virus,'' the statement says.

A.H.P. Matthew Elementary School, Tamanawis Secondary School and Ecolé Woodward Hill Elementary School in Surrey have all been confirmed to have had a case of a COVID-19 variant first identified in the U.K. (Google Maps)

The authority's statement says only those staff and students who have been identified as close contacts of the patients need to be tested and they have been notified.

All the schools remain open.

Cindy Daiglish, who has a child at Woodward Hill Elementary, said the news that the more transmissible variant is now in several B.C. schools has parents on edge.

"It's like we're back here where we were last March when everyone was like, what is this?," she said.

Jordan Tinney, superintendent of the Surrey School District, tweeted notices late Saturday that had been sent to parents at the schools saying two classes and more than 20 people have been told to stay home at Woodward Hill.

It says three people each at Tamanawis high and Matthew elementary were direct contacts to infected people at the schools and they've been directed to self-isolate and get tested.

On Sunday, he tweeted again to add the new schools affected in the district, which include a second case at Tamanawis. An additional class and seven people have been asked to self-isolate and get tested.

Two classes at Surrey Traditional Elementary School have been asked to stay at home and get tested, while five classes at James Ardiel Elementary have been asked to do the same.

A notice sent to parents on Saturday by the Delta School District says it received additional information that a person who attended Hellings elementary between Feb. 2 and 4 has tested positive for a variant.

There have been no other confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the school since the exposure, it says.

"Even though more than 14 days have passed since that exposure, out of an abundance of caution, Fraser Health reached out directly to one close contact of the individual with instructions for them to self-isolate and get tested for COVID-19,'' the statement says.

Union calls for rapid testing

A statement from the B.C. Teachers' Federation says the government and health officials need to counter the new threat to the safety of schools.

The union says school districts need the authority to go beyond the established health and safety guidelines when necessary.

"This will help keep people in schools safe, but also prevent the variants of concern from spreading to vulnerable adults living in students' homes,'' says the statement from BCTF president Teri Mooring.

"We also need to see widespread rapid testing when a COVID-19 variant of concern shows up in schools. This is not the time to be conservative with testing.''

Daiglish attended a meeting held by Tinney on Sunday for families of affected schools and was told that staff at Woodward had been sent for rapid testing. As of Sunday night 35 staff at Woodward had received negative rapid test results.

UBC's Otto said the discovery of the variant is a call to the community and residents around those schools to ramp up their protections.

This would be the time to restrict visits to the store, double mask, mask outdoors and maintain a heightened level of caution, she said.

"There's some chance that we can stop the variant from establishing in British Columbia and that means in these areas we all have to have higher vigilance.''

She said every week that the variants remain isolated in those community pockets is another week of vaccinations and saving lives.

Several health officials have warned that a third wave could be looming if the more contagious variants take hold.