Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer said residents need to reduce their contacts as summer draws to a close and schools prepare to reopen.
Dr. Saqib Shahab made the comments during a media update on Friday, where he clarified what is and is not a “bubble” as students, teachers and staff return to school on Sept. 8.
“We need to consider reducing our summer bubble, and to reset our virtual households based on people at higher risk of transmission,” Shahab explained on Friday. “In the event that we are required to provide a list of our activities and close contacts as part of a public health investigation, we will count our close contacts on the fingers of our hand.”
The current rules on virtual household and regular contacts have been in place throughout the summer.
“It is time to think about our summer bubble and how that may have to change,” Shahab said. “Even if we don’t have a school-age child, our extended virtual family bubble may include children, teachers, school staff and their families. Now is the time to examine our contacts and consider the new bubble that are about to be created by classrooms and fall activities.”
Public health require individuals to identify all known contacts if they receive a positive test as part of their contact investigations. The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) advises people to reduce any expanded,virtual households, which will make it easier to trace contacts.
The SHA said COVID-19 transmission may increase as the province moves indoors in the fall, and as schools restart. They reminded everyone to wash their hands frequently, maintain physical distancing and abide by the masking policies, businesses, or institutions. The most important reminder was to stay home if you are sick.
Shahab said Saskatchewan has successfully reduced its Effective Reproductive Number (EPN) as the economy has reopened. The ideal EPN is one, but Saskatchewan’s rate sits at 0.7 as of Aug. 22.
Saskatchewan currently has the lowest active case rate in Western Canada, with five cases per 100,000 people. This was despite some spikes in cases throughout the summer months. The Canadian rate is 13 active cases per 100,000 people.
Shahab said everyone deserved congratulations for keeping the transmission rate so low.
“It did go up a bit towards July and August, but it has come down again to very low levels, and that is really important as we enter the fall as we start more indoor activities,” Shahab said.
The Ministry of Education released their parent information package through the province’s school divisions yesterday with Public Health having input. These parent information packages contain general background on the Safe Schools Plan and guidance on how to prepare for a safe return to schools. The packages also include detailed fact-sheets on COVID-19 testing options and, processes for notification of illness in school and information regarding thresholds for changes to in-classroom learning.
Teachers and school staff have priority access to testing before and during the school year, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms. Shahab said that’s an important part of keeping virus at bay. However, basic health measures, like staying home when sick, will be even more vital.
“The cornerstone for back to school safety is that students and staff should never go to school if they are sick or if anyone living in their home has tested positive,” Shahab said.
If a teacher, staff or student test positive for COVID-19, Public Health will immediately begin an investigation of close contacts. Shahab said a similar approach hs worked well since the start of the pandemic. Any close contacts will be contacted directly, while “broader communications” will be sent to the rest of the class. A “close contact” is anyone who was less than two meters away from a COVID-19 patient for “an extended period of time.” That means one student can get sick, but the some members of the class may not be considered close contacts.
If there are two positive tests in a school, Public Health will declare an outbreak like they have in other settings. However, Shahab said that declaration does not necessarily mean that a school will close.
“All it means is the school will receive notification,” he explained. “A declaration will be posted on Saskatchewan.ca and further investigations will determine if close contacts of a case, or cases, need to self-isolate at home.”
“Over the last three months our close contacts have gone up as well,” he added. “We are going out with friends. We have our virtual household, so out average contact are is around 10, which is reasonable. (It’s) a bit on the high side, but reasonable since we have been enjoying the summer.”
Keep ‘virtual bubble’ small in fall and winter: Shahab
Shahab said most outbreak investigations have involved large numbers of contacts, since they came from larger, poorly organized gatherings. He said that should serve as a reminder for Saskatchewan residents, who need to pay attention to who they’re interacting with in case of an outbreak.
That’s the thinking behind the SHA’s back-to-school plan, which aims to minimize the cluster of cases, or chances for clusters, at the province’s schools.
Shahab said they’ll strictly monitor schools, but he’s confident cases will be less common there than in workplaces.
“In general, transmission is not as efficient in younger children as it is in adults,” he explained.
“With what we have seen they will be less common than in workplaces. Again, it is something that we need to monitor and in each situation where there is a single case,” he said.
Shahab said health officials understand this will not be an ordinary year for school. However, he added that they’ve learned a lot from reopening in other sectors. They know what works well and what keeps case numbers low, although he expects their plans to keep evolving throughout the year.
He said that the vast majority of students have opted for in-school learning, but acknowledged not everyone was comfortable with it.
“All parents obviously need to make a decision based on what is best for their child,” he said. “At this time, many school divisions have opted for choices in school learning, which is the preferred method of learning.”
Shahab added that this year could see several disruptions for parents and students. There may be several times where children have to stay home for up to 14 days if they are close contacts or test positive. He said school divisions are working very hard to make sure the learning continues, despite those disruptions.
Restrictions on gatherings remain in place, with indoor gatherings of up to 30 permitted where space allows for two metres of physical distancing between participants. Outdoor gatherings of up to 30 people are also permitted with appropriate physical distancing.