Saskatchewan

Sask. doctors answer parents' pressing back-to-school COVID-19 questions in town hall

On Thursday night during a virtual physician town hall, a panel of doctors answered questions from parents about topics including masks in schools, unvaccinated students under 12 and rapid testing. 

The virtual physician town hall Thursday night was hosted by Safe Schools Saskatchewan

The more-contagious Delta variant is driving up COVID-19 numbers in Saskatchewan. While the risk of children getting sick remains low, it's still cause for concern as parents prepare for back to school.  (AFP)

The more-contagious delta variant is driving up COVID-19 numbers in Saskatchewan. In fact, doctors say that nearly 100 per cent of COVID in the province is now the delta variant.

While the risk of children getting sick remains low, it's still cause for concern as parents prepare for back-to-school season. 

Parental concern was the topic at hand at a virtual physician town hall Thursday night, hosted by Safe Schools Saskatchewan. 

A panel of doctors answered questions from parents about subjects including masks in schools, unvaccinated students under 12 and rapid testing.

The panel, moderated by Regina mother of three Tenille Lafontaine, featured pediatricians Dr. Ayisha Kurji and Dr. Karen Leis, infectious disease specialist Dr. Alex Wong and epidemiologist Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine.

Here are the main takeaways from the town hall. 

Dread of breakthrough infections

Young people 12 and older are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Saskatchewan.

While vaccines are highly effective, there are still some fully vaccinated people who contract the virus. 

As parents prepare their children for school, some are worried about breakthrough infections. 

"Vaccines absolutely help protect you from being infected. But they're not perfect. So there is still a chance that you will have your child exposed to infection if they're in a classroom or any situation where there's shared indoor air space and there's not masking," said Kurji.

This is why the pediatrician continues to encourage mask-wear in schools.  

"It's a really tricky question, right? When you think about ... 'I'm putting my my child in a situation where there's risk.' I think it's always about weighing the risk and the benefits."

The town hall panel (clockwise from top left): Moderator Tenille Lafontaine, pediatrician Dr. Ayisha Kurji, epidemiologist Dr. Naseem Muhajarine, infectious disease specialist Dr. Alex Wong and pediatrician Dr. Karen Leis. (CBC News)

Kurji said that while there is always a risk of infection, there is also risk if parents choose not to put their children in school.

"We've seen lots of kids who struggled in the last year who weren't in school.... the mental health impact of the pandemic has been huge. So it's about weighing that risk," Kurji said. 

For children that are vaccinated, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is much lower than for older populations. 

Dr. Wong said the goal for parents should be getting all eligible children double-vaccinated, so when they are exposed to COVID-19, the risk is diminished. 

"I think we all, for better or for worse, kind of have to start to work on coming to terms with the fact that we're not probably going to be able to protect ourselves and our kids forever from from being exposed to COVID," said Wong.  

"And the contagiousness of this delta is just so significant that it's honestly not really realistic to believe that you're not going to get exposed at some point."

Wong admitted that parents of young children who cannot be vaccinated are in a tricky situation, but said the risk of illness remains extremely low among that demographic. 

Should schools be using rapid tests?

Rapid test use is low in Saskatchewan. Rapid testing is a screening tool that checks a person for a viral antigen, which could indicate the presence of a COVID-19 infection. Results are available in less than 15 minutes.  

"If rapid tests are available and accessible for parents and families, then I think it is a useful tool," said Wong. 

This is especially the case if the person being tested is asymptomatic.

"But as far as I'm aware, it's not something that's easily accessible or available at this time for parents and students," Wong said. 

Muhajarine said the province should be doing more rapid testing, and that the practicalities of getting rapid tests for schools need to be improved in Sask. 

"I think it is part of a complement of testing, tracing and self isolation that we have to continually practise into this fall, particularly if the delta variant is driving the current wave we are seeing," said Muhajarine. 

Wong and Muhajarine said that if parents have concerns about rapid tests, they should talk to their school divisions and ask about the possibility of bringing them into schools.

Dr. Alexander Wong is an infectious diseases doctor at Regina General Hospital. (Submitted by Alexander Wong/Saskatchewan Health Authority)

Do masks prevent young children from developing their immune system against COVID-19 naturally?

In 2020, fewer children were getting sick with illnesses like the flu or colds. That is largely due to masking. What does that mean for their developing immune systems?

Panel doctors said the mask-use is temporary and is unlikely to make an impact on the way children's immune systems function. 

"It helps prevent you from getting sick with the virus. I think that's a good thing," said Kurji. 

"I think knowing that we still have it out there, and we know that they don't have the vaccine to protect them, I still think it's the safest thing to do."

Muhajarine agreed, saying the benefit far outweighs the risk. 

Why are we asking children to wear masks when so few are getting sick and being hospitalized?

So far doctors and scientists have learned that young children are generally spared the more severe COVID-19 symptoms that older adults have had.

According to Leis, Canadian data shows that about 1.5 per cent of children with COVID 19 will be hospitalized.

"The issue is that there are still a lot of unanswered questions. What we're seeing with delta now is mostly anecdotal from public health offices and physicians working in hospital settings. And the evidence and published evidence always lags behind," Leis said. 

There are still unanswered questions about about long-term effects of COVID-19. Although there is no firm evidence to show that delta is more harmful to children, wearing masks is a safeguard until that evidence is available. 

"We're just a few months away from [younger] children getting vaccinated.… And I think it's prudent because we don't know all the answers at this point, and we don't know what the next few months will bring," said Leis. 

Dr. Alex Wong says the optimistic time for vaccines for those ages five to 11 to be online would be mid to late October. (The Canadian Press)

When will children under 12 be eligible for vaccination?

Doctors say younger children should be eligible for a vaccine by the end of the year.

"Everything is super top secret, obviously. But I think most most people who are kind of in the know at this point in time would expect that the data and the filing to the regulatory authorities [like Health Canada] would probably happen sometime for ages five to 11 by the end of September. That is kind of what we're looking at," said Wong. 

Wong noted that this timeline is the best case scenario. 

"From there, the question becomes how fast will the regulatory authorities move? There's obviously huge pressure on regulatory authorities to move quickly with this file. And so I suspect it will move quickly and probably get emergency authorization pretty quickly as long as the data is reasonably solid," said Wong.

After that, Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) will need to move quickly to provide recommendations which could then be considered and implemented by the provinces.

Wong said an optimistic timeline would see vaccines available for those aged five to 11 in mid to late October.

"The data is just lagging behind a bit because it took them a bit longer to recruit the trials," said Wong.

Wong said a vaccine for even younger children will likely follow shortly after. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan. She is also the community reporter for CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories. Laura previously worked for CBC Vancouver. Some of her former work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, NYLON Magazine, VICE Canada and The Tyee. She holds a Master of Journalism degree from the University of British Columbia. Follow Laura on Twitter: @MeLaura. Send her news tips at laura.sciarpelletti@cbc.ca

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