Public Health Sudbury and Districts says it is pulling out all the stops to help curb the rapid spread of COVID-19 cases in local schools.
With more than 3,000 vaccination appointments booked in the Sudbury and Manitoulin districts for children aged five to 11 and hundreds of rapid antigen screening kits distributed to students this week, there is hope that cases will decrease ahead of the Christmas break.
Although it’s too early to tell if these “additional layers of protection” are doing the trick, a health promoter at Public Health said she is confident these measures will help protect the school community.
Joëlle Martel added the local response to these programs have been positive so far and the health unit has been on hand to answer any questions that parents/guardians might have.
“Right now, the goal is to keep kids in school,” said Martel, who works in Public Health’s school health, vaccine preventable diseases, and COVID prevention division.
“If we start seeing cases go down and the trend holds steady, then we can slowly start to remove some of those measures, but our goal remains to keep kids in school as much as possible.”
Medical Officer of Health Dr. Penny Sutcliffe sounded alarm bells about the number of confirmed COVId-19 cases in local schools in the middle of November.
Sutcliffe said an increase of cases in the local community has “certainly impacted our school system, with many cohorts being dismissed and bus routes cancelled” in the health unit’s weekly report of Nov. 18.
As a result of the high volume of local cases and close contacts, other public health units across Ontario have been forced to step in and support local contact tracing efforts, she added.
On Tuesday, as an example, school boards in the Sudbury district reported nearly 80 active cases of COVID-19 in addition to nine COVID-19 outbreaks in schools and on school buses and four school closures.
To help get the situation under control, Sudbury’s health unit has doubled its efforts to introduce as many layers of protection as possible.
Following Health Canada’s announcement on Nov. 19 that the Pfizer-BioNTech Comirnaty vaccine has been approved for children five to 11, Public Health readied itself to deploy the vaccination program on the ground.
“The first clinic we held was on Friday, Nov. 26, at the Garson Community Centre and Arena. We were able to administer 180 doses that day, and that was the maximum availability for that clinic,” said Martel.
“We are definitely on track with what we were expecting, and we still have bookings coming in. Anyone who is interested can also book through their primary care providers or certain pharmacies who are offering COVID-19 vaccines.”
Children aged five to 11 can get vaccinated against COVID-19 at any of the health unit’s vaccination clinics in the Sudbury and Manitoulin districts.
Parents/guardians can book an appointment via the province’s online booking system or attend a walk-in clinic with their child.
Martel said the health unit’s next available appointment is on Dec. 14.
“We have clinics running at least five days per week right now, with the possibility of adding more, and we have made the pediatric Pfizer vaccine available at all of those clinics,” said Martel.
“We do give preference for those who booked an appointment because we have a dose set aside for them, but we try our absolute best not to turn anyone away.”
Public Health is also going to be offering school-based COVID-19 vaccination clinics in “select neighbourhoods” in the next couple of weeks.
Martel said the locations are being chosen in partnership with local school boards.
“We are choosing locations that are either remote, do not have many vaccination clinics nearby, or don’t have much access to public transporation,” she said.
“The school boards are very aware of their school communities, so we are relying on their expertise to help us plan.”
Among the questions most frequently asked about the COVID-19 vaccination program for children is which dose is appropriate for a child who will be turning 12 years old.
“If your child is currently 11 years old, they would get the pediatric dose,” answered Martel.
“If they turn 12 by the time their second dose comes up, they will be able to receive the dose approved for youth aged 12 to 17.”
Parents/guardians have also been concerned about the vaccine’s possible side effects.
“The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) reported that the data for Pfizer from their clinical trial showed that there were only mild symptoms,” said Martel.
“There were no cases of myocarditis or pericarditis. There was no multi-system inflammatory syndrome. The common side effects were predominantly fatigue, headaches, muscle pain, and chills.”
The health unit sent out preliminary packages to parents/guardians through local school boards with information related to COVID-19 vaccines for children.
There will be virtual parent information sessions available online shortly, and Martel encouraged residents to visit Public Health’s website for more information on frequently asked questions.
Martel said that she is not aware of any harassment taking place at vaccination clinics for children aged five to 11 as seen in other communities.
“We have had protesters at our adult clinics in the past, but we haven’t had any incidents that I am aware of since we opened to children on Friday,” she said.
“Public Health has good working relationships with the Greater Sudbury Police Service and with the Ontario Provincial Police in our region. We have processes in place in the event that something occurs.”
The health unit has also partnered with local school boards to distribute take-home rapid antigen screening kits for students.
In a letter to parents/guardians dated Nov. 24, the health unit said the screening kits are “an additional tool to help minimize risk of outbreaks and potential closures” in local schools.
“Increased testing can make it easier to track and prevent the spread of the virus in schools by helping to identify asymptomatic cases earlier,” said the letter.
As part of the program, all elementary school students were sent home with one kit, which includes five rapid antigen tests. Although all students were sent home with a kit, participation in the program is entirely voluntary and children do not need an antigen test to attend school.
Martel said this program was rapidly deployed because the health unit wanted to make sure they were doing everything they could “to protect in-person learning and keep those kids in school.”
“The rapid antigen tests will really help identify any cases among students who have no symptoms,” she said.
“The most important thing for parents and guardians to understand is the difference between a rapid antigen test and a PCR test.”
The rapid antigen test provided to students is what Martel called “a screening tool.”
“It should not be used on people that have symptoms and it cannot be used on those that have been exposed to COVID-19,” she said.
“For example, if your child is part of a dismissed cohort or is presenting with symptoms of COVID-19, you should be using the lab-based PCR test that is given at an assessment centre. This is because the PCR test is the diagnostic.”
Martel said the PCR test is used to identify the infection in someone and it is the “gold standard” for COVID-19 testing as it can detect small amounts of the virus and has a lower change of error.
Rapid antigen tests, on the other hand, should be used in conjunction with other screening tools.
The use of the rapid antigen testing kits is only recommended on students who are not fully vaccinated, have no symptoms of COVID-19, have not been identified as a high-risk close contact, and have not been a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the last 90 days.
Instructions to use the tests are provided on the take-home kit.
Parents/guardians should use the kits at home prior to attending school or taking the bus. It is recommended that the kits are used consistently twice per week with at least three days between tests.
Results will be shown in as little as 15 minutes. If the test is positive, the child will need to book a PCR test at a local assessment centre and self-isolate at home.
Public Health has distributed enough tests to last until the winter break.
The Ministry of Education has indicated that it will provide students with more rapid antigen testing kits that can be used during the break and before students return to school in the new year.
“Bear in mind that a negative rapid antigen test is not a green light to go and do whatever you want,” said Martel.
“It’s one piece of all the other things we should be doing right now to get COVID-19 cases down in the community.”
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Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star