Dozens of Alberta schools on ‘respiratory illness’ outbreaks

Click to play video: 'More than 20 Edmonton schools experiencing ‘respiratory illness outbreaks’' More than 20 Edmonton schools experiencing ‘respiratory illness outbreaks’
Thousands of kids are already missing from classrooms just a few weeks into the school year. Health experts say COVID-19 still plays a part, but there's more to the story. Morgan Black explains what parents need to know.

Less than three weeks into classes, respiratory illness outbreaks have been declared at more than 20 schools in Edmonton, Global News has learned.

An outbreak is declared by Alberta Health Services when schools report at least 10 per cent of students are sick.

At that point, health officials work with the school to determine next steps — a pre-pandemic process.

Read more: Alberta kids hospitalized by COVID-19 more in 2022 than ever before: data

“‘Respiratory illness outbreak’ is the terminology that Alberta Health Services has provided, and so they are working with (school) principals to determine if that’s in fact the case – there could be many reasons why kids are away ill,” Edmonton Public School Board Supt. Darrel Robertson told the school board Tuesday afternoon. EPSB’s district-wide absentee rate was 5.7 per cent that day, or 6,214 students.

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The EPSB had 17 schools listed in outbreak status on Tuesday:

  • Sweetgrass
  • Keheewin
  • Beacon Heights
  • Oliver
  • Virginia Park
  • Ekota
  • Belmont
  • King Edward
  • Clara Tyner
  • Elmwood
  • McKee
  • Duggan
  • Kirkness
  • York
  • James Gibbons
  • Belmead
  • Forest Heights

Four Edmonton Catholic Schools were experiencing outbreaks, but ECSD did not provide which schools they were.

An Alberta Health Services spokesperson confirmed there are 22 school outbreaks in the Edmonton zone, three in the Calgary zone and one in the North 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 the outbreak status.

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Only one Calgary public school is currently above the 10 per cent threshold, a Calgary Board of Education spokesperson confirmed.

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And a Calgary Catholic School District spokesperson confirmed one if its schools had an outbreak declared.

Earlier in the pandemic, CBE publicly reported COVID-related absences as a district-wide percentage online.

Read more: Some childhood routine vaccines declined in Alberta over last 2 years due to COVID delays

“As all COVID-19 public health measures were lifted by the province at the end of the last school year, the CBE’s school absence tracker was also discontinued at that time,” a CBE spokesperson told Global News in an email, noting the absentee rate on Tuesday was 5.64 per cent, or more than 7,000 students.

Calgary Catholic School District said since the province moved to Step 3 in its reopening plan on June 14, CCSD is no longer tracking self-reported COVID-19 cases.

“On any given day, students may be away from class due to sickness, personal issues, appointments, bereavements, etc. Therefore, the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) does not report illness absences,” a CCSD spokesperson said.

AHS not testing for diseases during outbreaks

AHS said they declare the outbreaks based on symptoms, not on testing, “and so (we) are unable to determine which specific illness is affecting each student.”

AHS guidance is to keep students away from school until their symptoms have improved and have not had a fever for at least 24 hours without the assistance of medication, and feel well enough to return to class.

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The provincial health authority said kids under 18 experience “relatively low” rates of severe illness from COVID-19.

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“Children are about 20 per cent of the total population but have accounted for less than one per cent of hospital admissions 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 under 90 per cent, in line with this time of year pre-COVID.”

A recent Global News report showed the number of children under 10 being admitted to hospital increased three-fold in the first eight months of 2022 when compared to all of 2020 and 2021.

The more you know

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 influenza circulating in either cities, according to wastewater testing.

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But he said other diseases like RSV, the common cold and COVID-19 are known to be circulating in the community.

“Without screening, we have no idea of what numbers those might be,” he said.

Jenne said a common anecdote compares daycares to petri dishes, “where kids get to experience and go through infections.”

Read more: Infected with COVID-19? Cuddling your pet cat or dog can make them sick, says study

“What we’ve really appreciated over the last few years, though, is what positive impact some of these public health measures have had on preventing infection,” Jenne said.

“Cohorting and wearing masks and things of that nature have really driven those numbers down.

“And realistically, if we look across the province right now, very few of those measures are in place anywhere.”

EPSB remains the only school district of the four to publicly report its absentee rate, systemwide and by school, for transparency, the superintendent said.

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Robertson noted 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 that they can navigate how it is that they support schools through an outbreak.”

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Jenne said the information on illness absences EPSB is still providing is “extremely useful.”

“If we don’t know what’s causing the infections and we don’t know where they are, it’s very difficult to, you know, shape public health responses, advice, guidance for parents. But it’s also very difficult to convey the importance, for example, of vaccination when those numbers – although are real – are not conveyed to the public,” the U of C professor said.

“In previous waves, that public reporting was essential to helping communicate exactly what’s going on out there and allowing parents to make informed decisions about their own health choices for their children.”

Read more: Canada preparing to drop COVID-19 vaccine mandate at border: government sources

EPSB superintendent told the board he would prefer to leave the communication of health information to AHS.

“It really is not our role as a school division to share health information,” Robertson said. “I think that we need to leave the health information to the health experts and we need to create safe spaces so that should a student choose or a staff member choose to wear a mask, that that is respected.

“I don’t really believe that we’re through COVID yet.”

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Hospitalizations, positivity rates rise in early fall

On Wednesday, the province reported 24 more COVID admissions to hospital, bringing the total up to 843. ICU patients remained even week-to-week at 26.

And in the past week, 24 more deaths in the province were attributed to COVID-19, bringing the pandemic total to 4,872. One of those individuals was aged 60-69, and the rest of the deaths were of Albertans aged 70 or older.

The seven-day PCR positivity rate rose last week to 19.52 per cent, up more than two and a half points from the week prior.

Through nearly all of this year, PCR tests have been restricted to individuals who are at clinical risk of severe disease with COVID-19, or who live and/or work in high-risk settings.

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Wednesday also marked the first day Albertans could access bivalent booster shots. Doses can be booked on the province’s website, by calling 811 or local pharmacies.

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Jenne called the Omicron-formulated vaccines “an important step.”

“For those that have received a booster shot recently of the conventional formulation that we’ve been using for the last two years, they’re still going to receive excellent protection against severe disease, against hospitalizations. For those that have maybe been waiting or indecisive, this new vaccine does offer better protection against infection and will continue to work if we get enough uptake to keep people out of hospitals,” the infectious diseases specialist said, noting hospitals are still experiencing great demand and stress.

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