Public school closures in the ‘tool kit’ after two Surrey schools linked to COVID-19

Public school closures in the ‘tool kit’ after two Surrey schools linked to COVID-19

But we’re not there yet, says Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer

British Columbia’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Monday that recommending the wholesale closure of public schools, or calling for an early or extending spring break, are “definitely abilities that we have in our tool kit” in the fight against the COVID-19 virus – but the province is not there yet.

“It’s hard to know how effective school closures are for this particular infection,” Henry told the Now-Leader, following COVID-19 situations involving Serpentine Heights elementary school in Fleetwood and Sullivan Heights Secondary school.

“I know many other places are doing that as a way to keep people away from each other in what we know are congregative settings,” Henry said. There are other measures that can be taken to make schools safer during this type of an outbreak, she added. “Things like separating kids in the classes, the enhanced hand hygiene for children, the enhanced cleaning.

“But the challenge is, if we do close schools,” Henry said, “is making sure that children are able to continue with their education and that they’re not congregating in other settings, which would be counter-intuitive and wouldn’t allow us to have not the control, but supervision of children that we do have in schools. So these are all things that we consider. We’re not at the point where we need that now – I will say that the fact that we have a two-week March break coming up is a little bit nice in that parents already have plans for what to do with their kids for those periods of time and then we’ll see, we’ll see where we are.”

Letters to parents were posted on both schools’ websites on Sunday, March 8 from Jordan Tinney, superintendent of Surrey Schools, concerning the virus. In Serpentine Heights elementary school’s case, a person who was part of a group that rented the school for a community function had been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), resulting in a thorough cleaning of the school.

“The entire school was cleaned on the weekend, like a deep clean, so this is above and beyond our usual,” school district spokeswoman Ritinder Matthew told the Now-Leader. “So right now we are following the guidelines that are in the provincial health officer’s guidance document.”

“It was a community group rental. We’re still continuing forward with rentals,” Matthew said. “The one agreement that has been postponed is the one involving the affected individual.”

On Monday during a teleconference call, Henry confirmed a man in his 80s, who was a resident of Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, died from the virus and that by press time Monday the province had seen 32 cases.

Of those, 16 involved people who had travelled to Iran, five who travelled to China and one to Italy.

The letter to parents of Sullivan Heights students said a member of the “Sullivan Heights Secondary community” was a confirmed case but “this person was asymptomatic during their time at the school; therefore, the risk to the school population is minimal.”

Henry said the two letters went out “mostly to reassure people.” While there were people who were in those facilities who tested positive for COVID-19, “they were asymptomatic, which means we do not believe there is a risk to people who have been using those facilities.


Health officials confirmed a COVID-19 connection to the “Sullivan Heights Secondary community.” (Tracy Holmes photo)

“The schools have been very proactive and did additional cleaning over the weekend to make sure everybody is reassured that they’re safe, and we have processes in place in all of our schools now to enhance cleaning, to enhance measures for people to be able to clean their hands regularly and we’ll monitoring those situations,” Henry said.

Asked if schools should continue to be rented out to community groups, given the threat this virus poses, Henry replied, “Again, in this case there was nobody with symptoms who were in that space, so it’s not a risk and we put out the messages so people can be re-assured.

Henry said she thinks each school has to “look at how things are being used and it’s really important to have those enhanced cleanings and the schools have been doing this cleaning twice a day, especially in high-touch areas and gyms would be an area we would want that.”

Henry has been providing daily updates to the media through teleconferences, and replying to reporters’ questions.

As for community events, she said – particularly gatherings in closed spaces, where meals are shared – she is asking people to “consider having alternatives to those types of environments right now, particularly if they’re being attended by people who are elderly, who are more likely to have severe illness or complications from this virus.”

Henry said it’s important we all try to “put some distance between us, even in small events, in business meetings, look at how we can do these things virtually.”

People who are sick need to stay home, she said. If you need to cough, cough in your sleeve, and clean your hands regularly.

Asked how long the virus can live on surfaces, Henry said this is “one of the questions that science has been looking at. It can live, depending on the temperature and humidity, for several hours sometimes. That’s why enhanced cleaning is really, really important.

“It is easily cleaned with using regular household cleaning products or one in 10 bleach solution,” she said. “But even if it’s on surfaces, that’s not how we get infected. We get infected by touching those surfaces.

“You need to clean your hands, and be really careful and vigilant about not touching your face and eyes.”

READ ALSO: Surrey Memorial’s biocontainment facility playing big role in B.C.’s COVID-19 response

Asked where does she think we’ll be with this in a month’s time, Henry said she’s “not going to speculate around numbers.

“Our focus is on breaking what we call those chains of transmission,” she said. “That means all of us have to do our part.

“When I talk about social distancing, when I talk about having gatherings, and staying an arm’s length from people, not doing the hand-shaking, sharing cups and things like that right now, that’s how we stop transmission in our community – recognizing that we can’t control everything coming in.”

At what point – with how many cases – would B.C. be overwhelmed?

“There’s a good question,” Henry said. “The way that we’re doing our scenario planning, and what we’ve seen in other places, is that it doesn’t happen across the province at once. So we need contingency planning to make sure that we are able to support the areas that are having outbreaks, so there’s no magic number and I think we all know that our hospitals are all working at 100 to 108 per cent, particularly at this time of year.”

“We are still at the end of influenza season, so we know that our hospital beds are fuller than they are at other times of the year.”

Henry also revealed “a disturbing thing” that some people have been phoning B.C. residents “offering them fraudulent laboratory testing for a cost.”

Legitimate testing is done for free, she said, “by our lab, which is an accredited lab” with a quick turnaround time.

“Beware” of scammers, she said.

As for long-term care homes – some are not permitting visitors while others are – Henry noted that these places “are homes, and residents who live there need the interaction with their family.

“But right now, we want people to be really, really careful.”

She said it depends where in the province you are, as the risk is higher in some places than it is in others.

All long-term care homes should be making sure they know what to do and have plans in place as they work with health authorities, Henry said.

“We want to have enhanced screening of visitors that are coming in and out of long-term care,” she said

“If you have any concerns about respiratory illnesses, stay away.”

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