Hamilton’s top doc says the city’s school boards and public health are still “working through” what a 30 per cent or higher in-person absentee rate will mean for a learning facility.
Medical officer of health Dr. Elizabeth Richardson says the measure is likely to be one of a few indicators to ascertain if “something unusual” may be happening in schools amid the winter return in a COVID-19 wave fuelled by the Omicron variant.
“So that is a piece that they’re working through operationally, and that’s likely where we might see school closures as we go forward in terms of looking at it from a COVID standpoint,” said Richardson.
As of Friday, six Hamilton schools reported absence rates higher than 30 per cent — a potential COVID monitoring measure the Ontario put in place due to the absence of adequate testing in communities.
All six are Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) operations with the highest rate at Cathy Wever Elementary in Central Hamilton – 37.2 per cent.
The others over the provinces threshold as of Jan. 24 are Prince of Wales, Hillcrest, Queen Mary, Bernie Custis Secondary and Turning Point Alternative Education.
In the city’s COVID update on Monday, Richardson suggested the number likely will be a piece used to judge whether there are “operational issues” at a said location that might lead to a school closing — like low staffing levels.
“That’s where we would work with them if they’re seeing something unusual in terms of what’s happening in the schools,” said Richardson.
“They have a number … of measures in place from masking to HEPA filters, to the screening … the cleaning that they’re doing, all of those things are going to really help them in terms of keeping transmission low.”
As per Ministry of Health’s guidance, public health will not be dismissing cohorts of positive cases in the city’s schools.
Earlier this month, the province’s chief medical officer characterized students and staff as generally no longer high-risk contacts requiring isolation and discontinued the process.
Students and staff who do not have symptoms, or who have not been advised to isolate, can attend a school if they pass a screening.
Data published Monday show nearly 337 Ontario schools hit the 30 percent absentee mark as of Friday and 111 schools had absence rates higher than 50 per cent.
Numbers were available for 3,451 of the province’s 4,844 schools.
One school in the Niagara Catholic District School Board (NCDSB) reported an absence rate of 100 per cent — St Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Elementary in Thorold.
The Niagara school was reported to have had a professional development day (PD).
Just over 20 schools had absence rates higher than 80 per cent.
HWDSB chair Dawn Danko told Global News that anyone looking at the numbers on the the provincial website have to “take them with a grain of salt” and understand that boards are still getting clarification on who should be reported absent and who should not.
Of the six Hamilton schools reported to the province, Danko says they have “baselines” that likely would fit the target of what Public Health Ontario and the Ministry of Education are looking for in a potential problematic situation.
“We have five composite schools or regular schools and one alternative education school. Those are tend to be our higher priority schools. They tend to be in the neighborhoods where we have lower vaccination rates,” Danko told 900 CHML’s Bill Kelly Show.
Hamilton boards implement self-reported positive test initiative
In an attempt to supplement the Ontario government’s absentee data, Hamilton’s public school boards will rely on guardians to voluntarily report positive COVID-19 student tests as of Monday.
In a notice to parents on the weekend, the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) and the Catholic board (HWCDSB) requested test results in the hopes of painting as accurate a picture as possible on the impact of the COVID amid the winter in-person return.
Parents are being asked to notify principals of a positive student test results while the board requests staff self-report. The data will then be posted to school websites without disclosing names.
“So if we have a set of confirmed cases, we are posting those on specific school websites,” Danko said.
“You would know which cohort they’re in if they’re on a bus, and parents, we do encourage them to subscribe to their school website to get those updates.”
However, Danko said the information will not be confirmed with Hamilton Public Health.
“This means that we cannot confirm the infectious period, but we want families to be able to make an informed decision about sending their child to school,” said Danko.
Hamilton’s COVID-19 vaccine program shifting focus to mobile clinics
Schools, retirement homes, long-term care homes and other high-risk settings will now be the focus of public health’s COVID vaccine campaign as it begins a shift away from large clinics in the weeks ahead.
As outlined during a board of health meeting in early January, the city will begin a shift to allocate resources to a mobile stream and provide a “longer more sustainable” initiative.
Vaccination clinics at its Lime-Ridge and Barton clinics reduced hours on Monday to free up resources for pop-up clinics targeting ages five-plus, as well as third and booster doses for eligible populations.
The St. Joseph’s West 5th clinic will also close on Friday night.
“Our mobile clinics from public health services are going to be attending local retirement homes to administer fourth doses to residents and third doses to staff,” Richardson said Monday.
“These clinics will be increasing access to these eligible populations over the coming weeks.”
The MOH also suggested neighborhood pharmacies as an alternative for the general public still needing a jab.
As of Monday, public health data revealed close to 25 per cent of all COVID-19 vaccines in Hamilton are being administered through pharmacy partners.
Over 87% of eligible Hamiltonians 12-plus fully vaccinated
As of Jan. 23, the city has put about 1.17 million COVID vaccine doses into arms with about 457,000 second visits and 260,000 third shots.
Over 81.3 per cent of eligible Hamiltonians aged five and up have had a pair of doses, while 86.4 per cent have gotten at least one shot.
About 87 per cent of residents aged 12-plus have had at least two shots, while about 89.7 per cent have had a first dose.
The city is still behind the provincial average, which has 88.9 per cent of those 12-plus with two doses and 91.6 per cent with a single dose.
Richardson says since August, the city’s “opportunistic and hyper local last mile strategy” has increased coverage rates in some central Hamilton locations struggling with uptake since vaccines have been available.
Crown Point in the city’s east end saw first dose coverage increase over 16 per cent since the start of August, with coverage rates for two doses up 25 per cent.
“Similarly, in the lower city’s Jamesville, Keith and Lansdale neighborhoods, we’ve seen in over 15 per cent increase in first dose coverage and nearly 25 per cent increase in two dose coverage,” according to Richardson.
Combined those regions also saw over 80 per cent of residents aged 12 and over get a pair of doses.
Excluding kids aged five to 11, Hamiltonians in the 12-to-17 age group represent the lowest vaccination rates of those eligible in all communities.
Just over 80 per cent have had two shots.