As the number of schools with COVID-19 variant exposures more than doubled Monday, Manitoba’s top doctor sought to ease concerns around the growing presence of highly contagious forms of the virus by touting a "very aggressive approach" to contact tracing.
Within the last five days, families at seven different schools have received public health letters about variant exposures.
The province announced new cases at St. Paul’s High School, École Rivière Rouge Community School, Highbury School, and Our Lady of Victory School, all located in Winnipeg, on Monday.
Dr. Brent Roussin said all cases are quarantining, in addition to affected classrooms and cohorts, while investigations are underway to determine infection sources.
"In schools, we’ve, up till now, had great results of preventing transmission of this virus, but now the variant of concern adds complexity to that," Roussin said during a Monday press conference.
"Right now, we have aggressive case and contact management, so we’re going to have more and more people self-isolating in these schools, more and more cohorts being (isolated) along with their households — so a very aggressive approach."
On Friday, the province confirmed initial variant exposures at École Taché and O.V. Jewitt Community School in Winnipeg and Pine Ridge Elementary in Winkler.
Variants that have arrived in Manitoba (B.1.1.7 first identified in the United Kingdom and B.1.351 first found in South Africa) are estimated to be between 30 to 50 per cent more contagious than the original.
Asymptomatic testing for school, child care staffClick to Expand
As of Monday, all staff working in schools with students, and licensed child care staff (including home based facilities) can access rapid asymptomatic COVID-19 testing at the test site at 1066 Nairn Avenue in Winnipeg.
Dr. Brent Roussin said the rapid test, which can return a result in 24 hours or less, is available to any school and child care staff, whether or not they have symptoms of COVID-19.
-Danielle Da Silva
When asked about the potential for school closures, Roussin said nothing is off the table as the province evaluates the situation.
For the time being, schools will carry on with existing practices of physical distancing, masking and handwashing.
When a positive case is first identified, principals will continue to help identify close contacts, who will be asked to self-isolate immediately.
Should a case be deemed a variant following screening and sequencing, public health will take the reins and consider sending entire classrooms or cohorts home. Individuals may be asked to quarantine for as many as 24 days.
Updated public health letters to families about variants recommend they "closely monitor" students, even if they are not deemed close contacts.
Given how fast the original virus can spread, let alone highly contagious variants, epidemiologist Cynthia Carr said there may be conversations next week — during the scheduled spring break for K-12 students — about whether schools should fully reopen in April.
"It’s not unlikely that we could know at some point during March break if it’s not safe for students to return," said Carr, founder of EPI Research Inc.
The spike in variant cases in Western Canada is a "stark reminder" of the exponential growth possible, so it will be critical to examine data closely, she added.
Citing a rise of variants of concern in Saskatchewan’s capital, which has 640 presumptive variant cases, Regina Public Schools issued a notice late last week about a temporary "proactive" pivot to remote learning.
High schoolers will begin remote learning in that province later this week and elementary students will join them next week, with all expected back at school after their scheduled spring break on April 12.
Despite anxiety among school staff surrounding the new variants in Manitoba, the president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society said Monday he has full confidence in public health and the measures in place.
James Bedford said officials briefed school leaders earlier this month about new "comprehensive" processes in place for contact tracing. Medical mask use will also be more common among staff who work with students who cannot effectively wear face coverings, Bedford said.
The province’s COVID-19 school dashboard indicates there have been 2,359 cases in schools to date. Roussin said the dashboard will include variant breakdowns by the end of the week.
The province has no plans to identify exact variants in schools.
Also Monday, Roussin said teachers, school staff and licensed child-care providers will be eligible for rapid testing at the Nairn Avenue site, regardless of whether they have symptoms, as of Tuesday.
— with files from Malak Abas
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.