No plans to close schools says province’s Chief Medical Health Officer

Dr. Saqib Shahab speaks to media during a COVID-19 update in Regina on Sunday, March 15. -- Screen capture.

There’s no need to shut down schools due to the COVID-19 outbreaks, but that may change in the future, according to Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer.

Dr. Saqib Shahab said all of Saskatchewan’s cases are travel related, not community related. He’s confident that as long as parents take proper precautions, closing schools won’t be necessary.

“We have to remember that school is a very structured place,” Shahab said during a media briefing in Regina Sunday morning. “They understand how to manage situations during flu season, cough and cold season.”

Shahab said children who display symptoms like a cough or fever should not be in school anyway, even if there was no COVID-19 pandemic. He also said closing schools may force parents to make other arrangements which are actually worse than a school setting, especially if they’re less formal.

COVID-19 is not an airborne disease, like measles, he explained. He said it can only be transmitted by close contact, so children should be safe in school unless they or a parent have recently travelled outside the province. In those cases, Shahab explained, children should be in self-isolation with their family, and not in school.

Those restrictions also apply to people who have travelled to conferences or events in other parts of Canada with large numbers of international guests.

“At this point, with the number of cases we have and the fact that they’re all travel related, we really don’t think that there’s any reason to close schools anywhere in the province at this time,” Shahab explained. “Obviously, we are in constant touch with local jurisdictions, including public health, medical health officer and school divisions. We have frequent discussions with them. If there’s a reason to close a school locally, that can happen, but there’s no reason to do that right now.”

For Saskatchewan schools to close there needs to be evidence of sustained transmission within a community, a rapid increase in local cases, or one transmission case without a known link to travel or confirmed cases, according to a government media release.

Some provinces, like Ontario, have decided to extend March break, meaning schools will close until April 14. In the Prince Albert area, Muskoday Community School has taken unilateral action and shut down for the next two weeks.

Muskoday First Nation administrators say that’s purely a precautionary measure since 43 staff and teachers recently returned from a conference in Edmonton. The community has no known presumptive cases of COVID-19.

With four new presumptive COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan, Shahab is encouraging residents to maintain strict social distancing policies. That means sitting at least one meter away from the nearest person, even if it’s a family gathering at home. He also advised residents to avoid things like shaking hands, calling it “the new normal” for the foreseeable future.

Shahab added that there is no way to predict how long the restrictions on travel or social contact will last.

“It’s now about two-and-a-half months into the outbreak, globally, so these are early days and I think we will need to watch very closely how this unfolds,” he told reporters. “I certainly think what we have in place is going to be there at least for one month. Is it going to be there for two or three months or six months? I really can’t say. We have to watch this very closely and make the appropriate decisions.”

“I think we need to continue to watch how this unfolds,” he added. “I really can’t predict beyond the next two to four weeks right now.”

A total of 524 COVID-19 tests have been performed in Saskatchewan, with six people showing either confirmed or presumptive positive results. Results are still pending on 44 of those 524 tests.

The Public Health Agency of Canada is recommending residents postpone or cancel all non-essential travel outside of Canada. Anyone returning home from outside the country has been asked to self-isolate for 14 days as a precaution.

For the most up to date information on COVID-19 in Saskatchewan, including prevention measures, self-isolation and self-monitoring sheets, and risk levels, visit www.saskatchewan.ca/coronavirus. Public inquiries may be directed to COVID19@health.gov.sk.ca

Anyone displaying COVID-19 symptoms is asked to contact their family physician by phone or call health line 811 to receive a referral for one of three testing sites in Saskatchewan.

COVID-19 symptoms include fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Those symptoms typically appear  two to 14 days after exposure.

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