Five weeks of classes, two incubation periods, and a single severe COVID-19 outbreak at a school later, medical experts suggest the return of tens of thousands of students this fall hasn’t had a remarkable effect on the growing COVID-19 caseload.
Dr. Brent Roussin has cited bars, restaurants, post-sports game gatherings and personal care homes as sites in which the virus has rapidly spread. The province's top doctor has yet to say that public or independent schools are concerning hot spots.
So far, 61 COVID-19 cases have been linked to schools in Manitoba, but community transmission has only been identified at John Pritchard School in North Kildonan.
"The (school-aged children) cases that have been identified have been primarily cases where the child was infected outside the school," said Dr. Sergio Fanella, an associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba.
In order to keep numbers low, Fanella said it’s important families continue to practise good hand hygiene, masking, social distancing and follow public health advice if an individual becomes ill — as well, to begin planning for flu shots.
John Pritchard is the only school that has been moved to "code orange." Since an asymptomatic individual attended the K-8 school in North Kildonan during the first week of classes, at least 39 cases have been connected to the cluster. That tally includes four staff members and 24 students.
Epidemiologist Cynthia Carr called the outbreak "a total anomaly," both in Manitoba and Canada.
Before Labour Day, Carr said she predicted there would be more cases connected to schools around this time, given the fact so many students, whose "immune systems are naive to the virus," are assembling for the first time since March. Schools also check off multiple high-risk boxes, she said, being largely indoor spaces that house people who are communicating for long periods of time.
"If there was going to be an impact, it would be really quickly seen," said Carr, founder of EPI Research Inc. "I think that it shows both the importance of all the planning that was done at the school levels and following the rules."
"It’s likely not that children are big transmitters of this virus — certainly, they can acquire it, certainly they do transmit it, but they don’t seem to bear the brunt of most of that burden." – Dr. Brent Roussin
She added it could also be further evidence children 10 and under are less likely to spread the disease and become severely ill than adults.
"It’s likely not that children are big transmitters of this virus — certainly, they can acquire it, certainly they do transmit it, but they don’t seem to bear the brunt of most of that burden," Roussin said at a news conference on Thursday when asked about whether back-to-school has affected the total caseload.
At the Manitoba Clinic, community pediatrician Dr. Grant MacDougall has yet to have a young patient who has tested positive for COVID-19.
"COVID is increasing, for sure, but seeing waves of kids with COVID? I'm just not seeing it… My feeling is, with all the mask-wearing and handwashing, there's less illness in general in the community. I’m hopeful that will reflect into a quieter flu season," MacDougall said.
Manitoba government data indicate youth 19 and younger account for approximately 17 per cent of the total caseload.
Roussin, Fanella, Carr, MacDougall and Dr. James Blanchard all prescribe continued public vigilance as the way to keep school numbers low.
"The more the wider community pays attention to reducing spread in responsible ways, the less likely it is that schools are going to be affected because schools are connected to the community," said Blanchard, an epidemiologist at the U of M.
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Meantime, it's unclear how COVID-19 was able to spread into the school community at John Pritchard.
The River East Transcona School Division declined to set up an interview with the school principal and did not provide an interview with superintendent Kelly Barkman on the subject this week.
Previously, the division told the Free Press a public health investigation determined some students in different cohorts were on a school bus together. It remains unclear if any of those students tested positive.
— With files from Michael Perreira
Maggie Macintosh Reporter
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.