Alberta's top doctor urges calm as COVID-19 cases pop up in some schools

The few cases of COVID-19 reported so far among students or staff do not mean Alberta should change its back-to-school plans, says the province's top doctor.

Alberta reports five COVID-19 deaths, 619 new cases over long weekend

Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw will provide her latest update on COVID-19 on Tuesday. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The few cases of COVID-19 reported so far among students or staff do not mean Alberta should change its back-to-school plans, says the province's top doctor.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw said no one should be surprised that a few cases have been linked to schools, given that case numbers in the province as a whole have been climbing over recent days.

"It's too early to be able to give an evaluation of our school model," Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said Tuesday at a news conference.

"We will be watching closely, and if our community transmission continues to rise, we may need to look at other models in certain high-transmission areas. But we want to make sure that we're giving every opportunity for students to have a successful return to school with everything we can provide in this model before we accept some of the risks that would come with any alternate model."

Alberta reported five more COVID-19 deaths over the long weekend and 619 new cases of the illness.

The latest update included cases reported over a four-day period from Friday to Monday. The daily totals of new cases were:

  • Friday, 154
  • Saturday, 171
  • Sunday, 137
  • Monday, 157

With community transmission numbers slowly rising, Hinshaw said, there is a higher likelihood that the province will have cases linked to schools.

"Since Sept. 1, Alberta Health Services has reported to us 11 cases that were present at 11 different schools while infectious," she said. "This leaves approximately 2,389 schools who have had no disruption. None of these 11 cases acquired infection at school.

"I expect we will have some low levels of transmission. And I've been very clear in the last few weeks that returning children to school in person cannot guarantee zero COVID-19 risk."

Families must make own decisions

In-classroom learning is optional in Alberta, and each family will have to make its own decisions, she said.

"The reality is we have to learn to live with COVID, and we have to learn to balance the risks of occasional exposures with the risks of keeping our children home, keeping our children out of school in person, which has other long-term risks for their health and well-being."

The best way to keep the illness out of schools is to slow the spread within the wider community, Hinshaw said.

The province has had child-care centres operating with 30 children and caretakers together since the middle of June, she said, and has seen few outbreaks in those settings, and the outbreaks that have happened have been limited to a few cases.

Andre Courbould, deputy minister of education, said there are clear protocols in place to manage the cases in schools, including when and how parents should be notified.

'Deliberate, concise decision-making'

"The reality on the ground from my perspective has been one of calm, deliberate, concise decision-making," Courbould said. "I certainly know the challenges the pandemic has brought to schools across the province here, and no doubt we are going to have moments of frustration and anxiety.

"But the reality is we are responding to those incidents very calmly, very deliberately and very quickly. We have a very strong re-entry plan and we know schools and staff are working very hard every day to ensure their schools are safe."

    By end of day Monday there were 1,692 active cases across the province, the highest total seen since May 9.

    The regional breakdown of active cases was:

    • Calgary zone: 732
    • Edmonton zone: 648
    • North zone: 212
    • Central zone: 52
    • South zone: 38
    • Unknown: 10

    In all, 45 people were being treated in Alberta hospitals for COVID-19, including 10 in ICU beds.

    The most recent deaths included a man and a woman in their 90s who were residents at the Good Samaritan Southgate Care Centre in Edmonton. The other three people — a man in his 50s and a man in his 80s in the Edmonton zone, and a man in 50s in the North zone — were not in continuing care.

    Over that four-day period, a total of 47,406 tests were conducted, including a single-day record of 12,561 on Monday. 

    The province's testing capability is getting a boost, with the announcement of a new COVID-19 testing centre at the Edmonton Expo Centre. 

    The new location — called the Central Assessment Centre — will be appointment based and is expected to complete about 5,000 swab tests per day. The Expo location is the largest testing centre in Edmonton, AHS said in a news release. 

    Quick response crucial

    Hinshaw spent most of her news conference answering media questions about a small number of illnesses among students or staff at a few schools.

    Quick actions on behalf of schools and parents will be crucial to keeping schools safe in the days and weeks ahead. she said.

    "I also know that getting told you have tested positive or are a close contact can be upsetting for these children and their parents," Hinshaw said. "I know that it can be frustrating, after just a few days in school, that they already may need to stay home for two weeks if they are a close contact."

    Public health officials will continue to evaluate the approach to assessing who qualifies as a close contact, she said. At this point, all students in a classroom are considered close contacts if a classmate was at school while infectious.

    "We will assess that, as I said, and over time perhaps be able to adjust and amend that cautious approach."

    Tuesday's news conference came as a growing number of possible coronavirus exposures were being reported in Alberta classrooms. Many schools across the province have reported individual cases within their populations. 

    CBC News has independently verified that at least 16 schools across the province were contending with individual cases either among staff, students or visitors. 

    Edmonton and the north

    A confirmed case of COVID-19 at Ross Sheppard High, a public school in northwest Edmonton, has sent nearly 100 students into isolation.

    About 96 Grade 10 students in three classes at the school need to get tested and self-isolate for 14 days, public school officials confirmed in a statement Tuesday. Provincial health officials will be reaching out to anyone who may have been in close contact with the infected individual.

    The school said all affected students have been contacted and will be supported with at-home learning. 

    The school underwent a deep clean before classes resumed Tuesday. 

    This weekend, a case was identified at Archbishop MacDonald High School in Edmonton.

    In a statement to CBC News on Tuesday, Edmonton Catholic Schools said a staff member at the school tested positive on Saturday. A letter was sent to parents on Sunday. 

    "We understand that the staff member was last in the school on Sept. 4, 2020, and physical distancing, proper use of PPE, proper hand hygiene and school protocols were consistently maintained while this staff member was at school," spokesperson Lori Nagy said in a statement. 

    "We have directed our custodial services team to conduct enhanced cleaning protocols in the areas identified within the building. This additional cleaning will focus on areas where the individual was present along with high touch areas and surfaces throughout the facility." 

    On Friday, Edmonton Catholic Schools confirmed that a student at Louis St. Laurent, a Catholic junior/senior high school in south Edmonton has tested positive for COVID-19.

    A fourth case was confirmed Wednesday at École Sainte-Jeanne-d'Arc, a French-speaking Edmonton elementary school operated by the Greater North Central Francophone Education Region.

    On Monday, the Fort Vermilion School Division in northern Alberta was informed that a staff member at St. Mary's Elementary School tested positive, delaying in-in class lessons until at least Sept. 21.

    "The decision to transition to online learning was made due to reduced in-person staffing levels available at the schools," reads a statement from the school.

    "A number of additional staff members considered close contacts are required to self-isolate for 14 days as directed by public health officials." 

    Calgary caseload

    Individual coronavirus cases have also been identified at several Calgary schools including Divine Mercy Catholic Elementary, Bowness High School, Bridlewood School, St. Angela School, Lester B. Pearson High School, Notre Dame High School, St. Wilfrid Elementary School, St. Francis High School and Arbour Lake School.

    In the case at Arbour Lake, a worker employed by the school's transportation provider tested positive. 

    Raymond High School in Raymond and Lawrence Grassi Middle School in Canmore are also dealing with individual cases. 

    "This is a very disturbing trend just days into the school year," Opposition education critic Sarah Hoffman said at a news conference Tuesday.

    Hoffman said the government needs to take the number of cases in schools seriously.

    She called for increased funding for Alberta classrooms to shrink class sizes. She also called on the province to adopt daily online reporting of all COVID cases in schools. 

    Alberta Health Services said it is compiling a list of schools with confirmed cases.

    According to provincial health guidelines for Alberta classrooms, a single case in a school population will trigger an investigation.

    An outbreak is declared when there are two or more confirmed cases in a school. When that happens, a letter will be sent to guardians and contact tracing will begin.

    Outbreak response

    In order to trigger an outbreak response, the two cases must be confirmed within a 14-day period or be considered epidemiologically linked. 

    Five or more confirmed cases will mean the outbreak is publicly reported on the Alberta Health outbreak website. 

    In the case of an outbreak, educators will work with provincial health officials to decide whether the school should close.

      With files from Wallis Snowdon