Province quiet on number of COVID-19 variant cases in Sask. schools
REGINA -- As COVID-19 variants continue to spread in Saskatchewan, it remains unclear exactly how many confirmed and presumptive variant cases have been detected in Saskatchewan schools.
The government confirmed 66 more variant cases Tuesday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 136. The Regina zone accounts for 122 – or 90 per cent – of the confirmed variant cases reported in the province.
During the government’s COVID-19 update Tuesday, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said Variants of Concern (VoC) are 70 per cent more transmissible than the original strain of COVID-19.
He said with the original strain, three out of 10 restaurant staffers would become symptomatic after a COVID-19 exposure. But with the B.1.1.7 variant, first found in the U.K., it would be 10 out of 10.
COVID-19 IN SCHOOLS
So far, there has been little transmission of COVID-19 within Saskatchewan schools.
According to Dr. Shahab, nine times out of 10, cases in schools were acquired outside of the school setting. He added that COVID-19 transmission between close contacts in schools is 11 per cent – compared to around 23 per cent in workplaces and 60 per cent in household gatherings.
The province said it will watch to see if transmission of the B.1.1.7 variant – the dominant strain in Regina – is higher in schools and will decide if more precautions are needed.
Two recent cases at Willowgrove School in Saskatoon were identified as “possible variants of concern” in a letter sent to parents Monday.
On the same day, two schools in the Good Spirit School Division confirmed cases of COVID-19 variants. All grades at Yorkton Regional High School and pre-kindergarten to Grade 6 at Davison School in Melville moved to remote learning for the next week.
CTV News reached out to the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) and Ministry of Health to ask how many confirmed and presumptive variant cases have been identified in schools.
“It is up to local medical health officers to have discussions with schools regarding the nature of cases in their community,” wrote the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health Media Desk. “In Regina, increasing community transmission of COVID-19 Variants of Concern has already been publicly reported.”
For VoC cases, the province reports the type of variant (B.1.1.7 or B.18.104.22.168) and the location, but age ranges of the confirmed and presumptive cases are not publicly available.
On Monday, both the Regina Public Schools and the Regina Catholic School Division (RCSD) said they had not been informed of any confirmed variant cases in schools.
Twylla West, spokesperson for the RCSD, said the SHA is treating all positive cases in schools as VoC cases, which means all contacts are asked to self-isolate.
Since March 10, 19 COVID-19 cases have been identified at 10 different RCSD schools. Public schools in Regina have seen 15 cases at 11 schools during the same timeframe.
“Proportional to the increase in transmission in Regina, more schools are getting a case or two. But all the layers of protection in schools are preventing larger outbreaks,” said Dr. Shahab.
The SHA is recommending all close contacts of school cases be tested twice during their 14-day isolation period to guard against asymptomatic spread.
Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF) president Patrick Maze said he has heard concerns from teachers about the variant – adding that children are often asymptomatic and the variant is more transmissible.
“We're playing a catch up game, reacting to the virus – especially this higher contagious variant, And yet, it seems like we're needlessly gambling with people's health,” said Maze.
The STF said teachers have not received a COVID-19 vaccine unless they meet the government’s eligibility, which is between the ages of 60 to 64 for the AstraZeneca drive-thru in Regina, older than 70 to book an appointment at a mass immunization clinic and over the age of 50 if they live in the Far North.
“We'll always be chasing this virus and we'll never be able to get in front of it, so it comes down to government leadership being able to say that we're going to take a proactive stance instead of just reacting to where the hotspots are,” said Maze.
Maze also raised concerns about rapid test kits, which have yet to be sent to schools. According to a press release, the STF asked Premier Scott Moe to reconsider recent changes to public health measures and to deploy rapid response test kits immediately.
In February, the government said it was preparing to offer hundreds of thousands of rapid COVID-19 testing kits across the province.
At the time, the province did not give an exact date as to when the tests might roll out because it is dependent on when it can find a provider to administer the tests.
CTV News reached out to the SHA to ask how many rapid test kits have been deployed in schools to date, the health authority said that information wasn't available today.
“[I’m] not trying to spread fear, but at the same point we need to understand that this has already spread to Saskatoon, it's in Regina, and it's not going to get better unless we change our approach,” said Maze.