Pembroke school staff with COVID-19 thought they had allergies

A health official in Pembroke, Ont. says more action could have been taken earlier to contain the spread of COVID-19 at Fellowes High School, Ontario's first school with an outbreak of COVID-19.  

Acting medical officer of health admits more could have been done to prevent outbreak at Fellowes High School

Allergies or COVID-19? Medical official urges vigilance when it comes to symptoms

2 years ago
Duration 0:52
Rob Cushman, acting medical officer of health for the Renfrew County and District Health Authority, said staff members at the now-closed Pembroke high school originally thought they had seasonal allergies before testing positive for COVID-19.

A health official in Pembroke, Ont. says more action could have been taken earlier to contain the spread of COVID-19 at Fellowes High School, Ontario's first school to close due to an outbreak of COVID-19. 

Rob Cushman, acting medical officer of health for the Renfrew County and District Health Authority, said the health authority was optimistic, perhaps to a fault, when the first cases appeared. When a third case among staff turned up positive, the health officials ordered the school to close. 

"We were a little surprised and actually, so were some of these staff members," he said. "They thought it was seasonal allergies or something like that, so they weren't … as vigilant as they might have been."

The electronic sign at Fellowes High School on Sept. 16, 2020. It closed Wednesday due to a COVID-19 outbreak involving three staff members. (Hugo Belanger/CBC)

But the director of education for the Renfrew County District School Board is defending the actions of Fellowes school staff. 

"We did have a member of staff who came to school during the three professional activity days … before the start of the official first day of school," said Pino Buffone in an interview Thursday with CBC's News Network. "They felt fine in the morning, came to school, and began to feel some symptoms. [They] wisely informed the school's administration, who also wisely sent that member of staff home. It was later confirmed … through the testing that that was the confirmed case."

He added that, despite having multiple positive cases at the school, "staff and our students … are doing their very best to restart school in a global pandemic context. I don't think this was any neglect on the part of students and staff."

On Wednesday, Fellowes High School, a school with 650 students and 55 staff members, cancelled all in-person classes until further notice, under a health order.

"We originally thought that this was very circumscribed to a very small part of the building, but with this latest case, it turns out this [third] individual also works in three other classrooms," said Cushman. "Ninety to 100 students are affected and a number of other staff members." 

All staff to be tested

Cushman is leaving open the possibility more cases will be discovered. There is a handful of people at the school who are showing symptoms of COVID-19 but have yet to receive a test result, he said. 

The health authority is testing all staff and around 90 students on Thursday and they hope to get results back in the next few days.

Meanwhile, the school board is vowing to re-open the school, with a reminder of how virulent the virus can be.

"We are doubling back with our staff to reinforce the importance of personal protective equipment and the judicious use of that, making sure we don't let our guard down," said Buffone. "Even when staff may not be in the presence of students, or it may be lunchtime — be cautious. Maybe distance yourself a little more from your colleagues."

Fourteen-year-old old James Panfili attends Fellowes High and although disappointed, agrees with the closure. (Hugo Belanger/CBC)

Community reaction

Many in the community, including students, are glad the school is closed, for now.

"I like school to get away from my house and also I like learning and the teachers," said 14-year-old student James Panfili. "[But] if three staff members had COVID, who's to say that students didn't catch it too?"

Panfili worries about more spread because he says students don't always stay apart while at school, although he said his classmates were all wearing masks. 

Parents around Pembroke agree with closure and some worry about further spread. Monique Gervais, who has a five-year-old daughter, is considering keeping her home from elementary school until the extent of the outbreak is clear. 

"We are antsy," she said. "I think in the next week or two the other schools will close also …s ome kids who are going to Fellowes — they have younger siblings."

— With files from Sonja Koenig and Deana Sumanac