Less than three weeks into classes, outbreaks of respiratory illnesses have been declared at more than 20 schools in Edmonton, Global News has learned.
An outbreak has been declared by Alberta Health Services when the schools report that at least 10 percent of the students are sick.
At that point, health officials are working with the school to determine next steps — a pre-pandemic process.
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“‘Respiratory disease outbreak’ is the terminology provided by Alberta Health Services and so they are working with (school) principals to determine if that is actually the case – there can be many reasons why children are sick.” Edmonton Public School Board Supt. Darrel Robertson told the school board Tuesday afternoon. EPSB’s districtwide absenteeism rate was 5.7 percent that day, or 6,214 students.
EPSB had 17 schools listed in outbreak status on Tuesday:
- Sweet grass
- let’s go
- Beacon Heights
- Virginia Park
- King Edward
- Clara Tyner
- James Gibbons
- Forest heights
Four Catholic schools in Edmonton experienced outbreaks, but the ECSD did not say which schools they were.
A spokesperson for Alberta Health Services confirmed there are 22 school outbreaks in the Edmonton zone, three in the Calgary zone and one in the northern zone.
Fourteen outbreak notification letters went out to Edmonton schools this week and eight last week, the provincial health authority said.
Families received letters from their schools informing them of outbreak status.
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Only one elementary school in Calgary is currently above the 10 per cent threshold, a spokesperson for the Calgary Board of Education confirmed.
And a spokesperson for the Calgary Catholic School District confirmed one if its schools had declared an outbreak.
Earlier in the pandemic, CBE publicly reported COVID-related absenteeism as a district-wide percentage online.
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“Since all COVID-19 public health measures were lifted by the province at the end of last school year, CBE’s school absence meter was also discontinued at that time,” a CBE spokesperson told Global News in an email, noting the absence rate on Tuesday was 5, 64 per cent, or more than 7,000 students.
The Calgary Catholic School District said since the province moved to stage 3 of its reopening plan on June 14, CCSD is no longer tracking self-reported COVID-19 cases.
“On any given day, students may be absent from class due to illness, personal issues, appointments, deaths, etc. Therefore, the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) does not report sickness absences,” said a CCSD spokesperson.
AHS does not test for diseases during outbreaks
AHS said it declares the outbreaks based on symptoms, not tests, “and so (we) are not able to determine which specific disease is affecting each student.”
AHS guidance is to keep students out of school until their symptoms have improved and have been fever-free for at least 24 hours without the help of medication and feel well enough to return to class.
The provincial health authority said children under the age of 18 are experiencing “relatively low” rates of severe illness from COVID-19.
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“Children make up about 20 percent of the total population, but have accounted for less than one percent of hospitalizations in September to date,” Kerry Williamson wrote in an email to Global News.
“Total inpatient occupancy at the two children’s hospitals in September to date is below 90 percent, in line with this time of year before COVID.”
A recent report by Global News showed that the number of children under 10 hospitalized tripled in the first eight months of 2022 compared to all of 2020 and 2021.
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Dr. Craig Jenne, an associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary, said there doesn’t appear to be much flu circulating in either city, according to sewage tests.
But he said other diseases such as RSV, the common cold and COVID-19 are known to circulate in the community.
“Without screening, we have no idea what the numbers might be,” he said.
Jenne said a common anecdote compares day care centers to petri dishes, “where kids get to experience and go through infections.”
“What we’ve really appreciated over the last few years, though, is the positive impact some of these public health measures have had on preventing infection,” Jenne said.
“Cohorts and wearing masks and things like that have really driven those numbers down.
“And realistically, if we look across the province right now, very few of these measures are in place anywhere.”
EPSB remains the only school district of the four to publicly report its absenteeism rate, systemwide and by school, for transparency, the superintendent said.
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Robertson noted that the EPSB continues to track COVID-19 reported illnesses “so that we can better communicate our situation not only to our public, but most importantly to Alberta Health Services so they can navigate how it is that they supporting schools through an outbreak.”
Jenne said the sickness absence information EPSB still provides is “extremely useful.”
“If we don’t know what causes the infections and we don’t know where they are, it’s very difficult to shape public health responses, advice and guidance to parents. But it’s also very difficult to convey the importance of, for example, vaccination, when those numbers – even if they are real – are not communicated to the public,” the U of C professor said.
“In previous waves, this public reporting was essential to help communicate exactly what’s going on out there and empower parents to make informed decisions about their own health choices for their children.”
The EPSB superintendent told the board that he would prefer to leave the communication of health information to AHS.
“It’s really not our role as a school department to share health information,” Robertson said. “I believe that we must leave the health information to the health experts, and we must create safe spaces, so that if a student chooses or an employee chooses to wear a mask, it is respected.
“I don’t really believe we’re through with COVID yet.”
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On Wednesday, the province reported 24 more COVID hospitalizations, bringing the total to 843. ICU patients remained flat week-over-week at 26.
And in the past week, another 24 deaths in the province were attributed to COVID-19, bringing the pandemic total to 4,872. One of those people was aged 60-69, and the rest of the deaths were of Albertans aged 70 or older.
The seven-day PCR positivity rose last week to 19.52 percent, an increase of more than two and a half points from the previous week.
For almost all of this year, PCR testing has been limited to people who are at clinical risk of severe illness with COVID-19, or who live and/or work in high-risk environments.
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Wednesday also marked the first day Albertans could access bivalent booster shots. Doses can be ordered on the province’s websiteby calling 811 or local pharmacies.
Jenne called the Omicron-formulated vaccines “an important step.”
“For those who have recently received a booster shot of the conventional formulation that we have been using for the past two years, they will still receive excellent protection against serious illness, against hospitalizations. For those who may have waited or been undecided, this new vaccine offers better protection against infection and will continue to work if we get enough uptake to keep people out of hospitals,” the infectious disease specialist said, noting that hospitals are still experiencing high demand. and stress.
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