The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for August 12
- Ottawa to provide additional $305M to Indigenous communities for COVID-19 support.
- Race-based data must be collected to help fight COVID-19 in Alberta, advocates say.
- What's behind the changes in Quebec's new back-to-school plan?
- B.C. students will be back in class by Sept. 10; N.L. businesses feeling supply chain woes from COVID-19.
- Read more: A look at the different vaccines under development, and where they are in the pipeline.
Experts offer advice on going back to school amid the pandemic
As schools across Canada finalize their back-to-class plans, doctors say there are a few things educators and parents should keep in mind during the COVID-19 pandemic. People will form new routines that build on the advice provincial medical officers of health regularly share about handwashing, avoiding touching your face and trying to keep two metres away from others. Schools will now put students into smaller groups, check ventilation and consider use of masks.
Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious diseases physician at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said keeping school as safe as possible for kids to learn and socialize doesn't follow a set timetable. By necessity, she said, school plans can't be perfect and people won't follow all of the basics to the letter at all times. "If we don't do a better job of tracking and tracing, then some of these school plans … are going to fail, and we're going to see outbreaks and clusters we can't control," she said.
Layering public health measures for all Canadians on top of testing and contact tracing aims to keep outbreaks manageable. Many school boards have not yet offered details on what they'll be implementing to keep children safe and how. Until then, infectious disease and public health experts say some precautions will be the most effective. Infectious disease physicians stress prevention before control — meaning they'd like to keep the novel coronavirus out of schools altogether. That's why they, along with pediatricians and epidemiologists, repeat that people need to stay home when sick.
Public health experts have repeatedly stressed that physical distancing is key to preventing the spread of COVID-19, but how that will play out in schools with small classrooms and large numbers remains to be seen. The federal government's COVID-19 guidance for schools emphasizes separating people from each other through physical distancing and barriers as more protective than what individuals can do, such as covering coughs, handwashing or wearing non-medical masks. To that end, local medical officers of health in Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa have called for smaller class sizes.
Provincial recommendations to school boards are also subject to change, while masks are another issue school boards are tackling differently. Dr. Catherine Clase, a nephrologist at St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont., suggests fabric masks for students. Some school boards across Canada are making masks mandatory for secondary school students. "If [masks] are normalized in school and we have conversations and kids are not shamed for doing it wrong, I think that's going to be really important," said Dr. Laura Sauvé, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of British Columbia. "Everything we do has to be done with the thought of kindness and support."
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Ottawa to provide additional $305M to Indigenous communities for COVID-19 support
The federal government will provide an additional $305 million to support Indigenous people during the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller announced today. Miller says the funding will support community initiatives that aim to prevent, prepare for and respond to COVID-19 in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. "We want to continue to support their strong pandemic management and ensure that Indigenous leaders have the tools they need at their disposal to implement various aspects of their pandemic plans," Miller said.
The new funding will be available to communities on-reserve, and to organizations that serve Indigenous people living off-reserve. A government news release said the money can be spent in a variety of ways — in addition to preparedness measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — such as supporting elders and vulnerable community members, addressing food insecurity, educational and other supports for children, mental health assistance and emergency response services. The money will be distributed through a combination of direct transfers to Indigenous, Métis and Inuit leadership and through needs-based funding disbursed through an application process.
The funding will come from the Indigenous Community Support Fund, which has already allocated $380 million in funding to more than 260 Indigenous communities and organizations, Miller said. Ottawa has faced calls from Indigenous leaders in recent weeks for more support as the daily rate of new COVID-19 cases flattens across the country. An online petition attempting to bring attention to chronic health inequities in those communities has garnered more than 50,000 signatures. As of July 31, the percentage of First Nations people who have tested positive for COVID-19 is one-quarter the rate of the rest of the Canadian population and the death rate on reserve is one-fifth.
Race-based data must be collected to help fight COVID-19 in Alberta, advocates say
Human rights advocates, anti-racist groups, researchers and social agencies say demographic data regarding COVID-19 cases needs to be collected and shared publicly in Alberta to ensure those impacted the most by the virus are getting the help they need. In Ontario, demographic data suggests that minority groups are over-represented in reported cases of the disease, but no such data is publicly available in Alberta. "It could lead to a change in health care," said Linda McKay-Panos, a leading human rights advocate in Alberta.
Alberta Health says the government has instead chosen to focus on risk factors and "case-specific data by age and location" when it comes to sharing information about COVID-19. In the United States, the COVID Racial Data Tracker found that Black people are dying at 2.5 times the rate of white people. In Toronto, Black people make up 21 per cent of COVID-19 cases even though they only make up nine per cent of the city's population. White people accounted for 17 per cent of the cases, despite representing 48 per cent of the population. The data also showed lower income earners make up a higher share of the total number of cases in Canada's biggest city.
While there are calls for more information about people impacted by COVID-19, there are also warnings about how the data could lead to further discrimination and stigmatizion of certain groups. "You'd hate to see an employer say, 'Well, we're not going to hire you because you have a greater chance of having COVID,'" McKay-Panos said. "We don't want to see the blowback. In other words, the statistics can't be used negatively. They have to be used in a way to help people so that we can all get through this and address it in a proper way."
Earlier this week, after weeks of increasingly urgent questions from teachers and parents, Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced major revisions to the government's strategy for mitigating the risks of returning to school. While the new plan addresses many of the major concerns of health experts, there are some holes they hope will be addressed in subsequent revisions.
The biggest issue about the first draft of Roberge's back-to-school plan in June was the absence of any mask requirements for students. The updated version of Quebec's plan, released Monday, is in line with the latest research: students in Grade 5 and up will have to wear a mask almost everywhere inside, unless they're seated at their desks. Given that infection rates are still relatively high in Quebec, some experts have suggested students should wear their masks in the classroom as well, at least for the start of the year. "I think this is the time to push for maximum intervention to reduce the risk of viral transmission," said Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious disease specialist with the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal.
The other big change from the June draft is doing away with the concept of "bubbles." Initially, it was thought keeping students in small sub-groups of six would limit the size of outbreaks. But many teachers worried bubbles would be a nightmare to enforce, and medical experts said their value was minimal. "Whether you have small bubbles or not, the entire class would be quarantined if there was a case in the classroom," said Dr. Caroline Quach, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at the Sainte-Justine children's hospital in Montreal. Instead of bubbles, students will be able to interact with anyone in their class, but not with students from other classes.
Answering your COVID-19 questions
Lorna C. asked, "What is the plan to ensure safe air flow and humane working temperatures in elementary schools without air conditioning?" Dr. Laura Sauvé, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of British Columbia, said at her clinic, fans are generally avoided to prevent the spread of fungal spores but they are turned on since it can get as hot as 35 C inside. For schools, Sauvé said opening windows is encouraged. Provincial occupational health and safety committees have more specific recommendations on ventilation in school.
Monica N. asked about how often to change a mask during a six-hour day with Grade 3 students. If families have the resources, then both Sauvé and Dr. Catherine Clase, a nephrologist at St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont., suggest providing two facial coverings each day to change at lunch or if one becomes soiled. "We need to be planning for at least one clean mask for every person going outside the house every morning," Clase said.
Albertans choosing masks to match their wardrobes
As masks and face coverings become more commonplace, some Albertans are looking for ways to stand out in the crowd. While N-95 respirators still offer the best protection, non-medical masks are often preferred by the public because of their comfort, reusability and in some cases — fashionable design.
Although masks serve a function to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, experts say some are just as concerned with how masks might fit into a wardrobe. "It's a sign that people have rationalized the use of masks and that beyond the rational use of it, it becomes a fashionable item that may convey to people who an individual is," said Anne Bissonnette, associate professor in material culture and curatorship at the University of Alberta. "They might not love wearing a mask, but they might love it a little more if this mask is something that they find esthetically pleasing," she said.
Christy Hutchinson, owner of Theatre Garage in Edmonton, said the demand for masks has helped keep her company running during the pandemic. "We're pumping out a lot of masks and trying to do our best to keep our head above water," she said. Theatre Garage offers masks for all ages in a variety of styles and fits. Hutchison said although fashion is popular, most of her customers are interested in fit and comfort.
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With files from CBC News, The Canadian Press, The Associated Press and Reuters