Return to School, Dr Paul at EOHU, and March Break

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The kids in North Dundas headed back to in-person learning on Monday, February 1. Dr Paul Roumeliotis of the Eastern Ontario Health Unit spoke about students returning to in-person learning during his twice-weekly Covid-19 news update.

The numbers have gone down throughout the province, and although the schools are opening in our area, Dr Paul reminds us to be vigilant. The decision to re-open schools was based on a number of factors. There are fewer cases of Covid-19 in the community. While Dr Paul maintains that schools are safe, he agrees that it was a prudent move to close them while the numbers continued to rise after the holiday. When community transmission rates are high, schools are in danger of becoming sites of outbreaks, and asymptomatic children can unknowingly carry the virus home to more vulnerable people. Currently, hospitalisation rates have stabilised. Outbreaks have stabilised. The reproduction rate has gone below one. The reproduction number is, in short, the number of people being infected by one case, or the average number of secondary cases generated by an index case. When that number is greater than one, it means that community transmission is on the rise. Currently reproduction rate has dropped below 0.8.

New measures will be in place, and measures such as rapid testing will be added as needed. The province is planning asymptomatic testing to detect and isolate cases of Covid-19 early. Dr Paul explains that as it stands now, our area will not be doing large numbers of asymptomatic testing on children in schools. Most likely in our area, rapid testing will take the form of a child presenting at school with symptoms, being tested using one of the rapid testing methods with cooperation of the parents, giving the health unit the opportunity to isolate a case and prevent transmission in schools. They are creating a province-wide menu of approaches, including access to two different rapid testing systems, as well as the ability to fast track testing at regular testing centres should the need arise.

Nurses will be going into all schools to answer questions, review pandemic protocols, instruct staff and students on new guidelines, and possible responses to outbreaks going forward. Masks are now mandatory for all students from grades 1 to 3, as well as grades 4 to 12 as previously mandated. Masks must now be worn outdoors if the children cannot stay 2 meters apart. Kindergarten children are encouraged to wear masks. Schools will be required to validate that all students, staff, and visitors have been screened for symptoms of Covid-19 prior to entering school. The screening tool can be accessed at https://covid-19.ontario.ca/school-screening/ . The screening tool is available on the website, but also a version is available for download in English, French, and a variety of other languages.

Dr Paul spoke of his concern for children over the March Break. He has raised the possibility of cancelling March Break. He acknowledges that staff, teachers, and students need a break, and notes that it is not the decision of the EOHU whether or not to cancel March Break, but that he is very concerned given what happened to the numbers over the Christmas break. Cases of Covid-19 in children between 4 to 13 years of age increased dramatically after the break, reflecting the behaviours of parents and children over the break. Dr Paul maintains that parents must prevent their children from mingling with others during March Break if it goes ahead.

He also spoke of current status of Covid-19 in the EOHU. There are still unresolved cases in the EOHU, and there are current outbreaks at Long-term Care Homes, but that numbers are decreasing. Every resident in a Long-term Care Home has received their first dose of the vaccine. The EOHU received only 200 doses of the Moderna vaccine this past week, and no doses of the Pfizer vaccine. The vaccination of high-risk individuals at Retirement Homes will continue. The decision has been made to ensure that all those receiving vaccinations in Long-term Care Homes will receive their second dose between 21 to 27 days after the first dose. Others currently being vaccinated, such as those not high risk in Retirement Residences, will receive their second doses between 35 to 41 days from their first dose.

Dr Paul spoke of the need to remain vigilant, especially with the three new variants of the Covid-19 virus being on our horizon. There have been no cases reported of any of the three new variants in our area, but there has been in Ottawa, Toronto, Peel, Durham, and elsewhere. He explained that, whereas in the past we might have gotten away with a lapse in social distancing, the new variants are much more contagious. They spread between people much more easily. He described the new variants as having a protein that is much more able to stick. The three variants most concerning for doctors, epidemiologists, and scientists are from South Africa, UK, and Brasil.

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