As Hamilton’s two public school systems head into the third week of a fall return amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the two boards reported 65 students and staff contracted an infection during the first two weeks back.
Since the September return, the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) has reported 38 total cases among 23 schools while the Catholic board (HWCDSB) says they’ve had 27 tied to 11 schools.
Along with the cases, five city schools have experienced outbreaks with four active as of Tuesday involving a combined 10 cases at Tapleytown Elementary in Stoney Creek, St. Thomas More Catholic, Huntington Park Elementary School and Shannen Koostachin Elementary School.
A school outbreak is defined by the province as two or more lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases with an epidemiological link within a 14-day period where at least one case could have reasonably acquired an infection in the school.
Students make up 55 of all the school infections with 33 at the HWDSB and 22 at Catholic Schools.
As of Monday, Ontario schools reported 1,009 cases in the first two weeks of the return with another 293 reported over the weekend. Over 85 per cent (874) are among students. About 12 per cent (593) of the 4,844 schools in the province now have at least one COVID case.
Ontario did have a lower number of total school cases this same time last year — 91 — however, not all schools had returned to their academic year.
Ryan Imgrund, a biostatistician who tracks COVID-19 case numbers every day, says the school year didn’t get off to a great start with numbers in the first week similar to what was seen in the third and fourth week of the 2020 return.
He suggests part of the issue is the absence of designated cohorts which had secondary students last year avoiding groups by alternating day to day morning sessions and avoiding shared lunches in cafeterias.
“If you think back to last year of our 70 some odd school boards, 28 of them were actually designated,” Imgrund said.
“So both Hamilton public, Hamilton Catholic, they were school boards that were designated. What this means is that secondary students only attended morning’s only every other day.”
HWDSB chair Dawn Danko told Global during the first week back that the board knew there would be cases and that the key would be finding ways to limit spread, including the implementation of short regional shut downs should cases get out of control.
“That’s what we’ve heard from the province. They’re not planning a province wide shutdown,” Danko told Global News.
“We can look at what’s happening in Hamilton, how are we managing in the HWDSB, and if we do need to close a school or a classroom or a cohort temporarily, the goal is to keep it very temporary.”
On Monday, Hamilton’s medical officer Dr. Elizabeth Richardson said she was also expecting cases in schools and insists it’s a part of what’s going on in the community.
“So as those number of cases come down, we hope that the number of cases in schools will continue to be at this level and not increase further,” Richardson said.
“As we do have more contacts going on, that is a concern, there will be an increased number of cases and an increased number of outbreaks.”
Richardson said the city’s health officials are “watching very closely” a push from Pfizer seeking authorization “as early as possible” from Health Canada to allow their COVID vaccine to be administered in children aged 5 to 11 who to date have not been eligible for a shot.
“So exciting news as the initial results come in and then continuing to watch to see how that regulatory process unfolds and just when it might be that we’re able to extend vaccinations to a lower age,” said Richardson.
On Monday Pfizer said testing showed promising results on children and continues to send Health Canada data on the findings – not yet peer-reviewed, nor published.
The company went on to say it expects to release clinical trial data as early as the end of October revealing how well the shot works on children 6-months to 5-years-old.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch told Global News that approvals from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada for the vaccines use in children will “take time” as the agencies will have a lot of data to read over.
“I think that it’s fair to say that we’ll probably see an approval of vaccinations for the five to 12 year old crowd maybe in the latter part of 2021 at the latest,” Bogoach said.
“Maybe it’s going to be early 2022. But it’s definitely on the midterm horizon.”
Second dose vaccinations among those aged 12 through 17 in Hamilton was up over 10 percent month over month in September. However, the rate of the inoculations (68.78 per cent) in that age group still lags behind the city’s overall two dose average which is at 75.4 per cent as of Monday.
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