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Zalan: Stemming the COVID-19 tide means we have to get serious about school infections

Asymptomatic young people are likely a driving force of the fourth wave. Making vaccination mandatory for in-class learning and widening the scope of rapid testing to include a wider swath of the community must be considered, Dr. Peter Zalan argues
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Sudbury is still a COVID-19 hotspot and things are getting hotter. There were 11 COVID-19 outbreaks in the community at the end of October. Only a month later, there were 36, including 18 in schools and on school buses. 

In terms of demographics, residents aged 19 and younger have had the highest rate of new cases per 100 000 population. And because young people tend to have few or no symptoms, many infections go undetected.

Ryan Imgrund, a biostatistician based in Sudbury, believes infections in students are a powerful mode of spread in the community: from student to student in the classroom and from student to family in the home, and then from family members to individuals out in the community. 

Given the local surge in cases and with the holiday season fast approaching, Sudbury Public Health reintroduced capacity and gathering limits. On Nov. 26, it reinstated work-from-home requirements.

And most recently, Public Health began to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to children aged five to 11. In collaboration with local school boards, it offers take-home rapid antigen screening kits to students in both elementary and secondary schools. Participation will be voluntary. 

Two people have died in the last three days. At Health Sciences North (as of this writing), 25 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 and nine of those people are in the Intensive Care Unit. These are numbers that indicate that the level of serious illness in the community is slowly rising.

To date, fewer than 20 per cent of school children under 12 have received their first vaccine. They must wait eight weeks to receive the second dose. Of children 12 and under, 22 per cent remain unvaccinated. That is a large pool of unprotected individuals studying, socializing and spending time together in close proximity.

For years, Ontario students have been required to show proof of vaccination for measles, mumps, diphtheria and other contagious diseases, in order to be permitted to attend school. Vaccination for COVID-19 is not a requirement to attend, in spite of its highly infectious nature. The use of the proposed take-home rapid antigen screening kits for students is only voluntary. 

On Sept. 27, the chair of the Toronto District School Board requested that the Ontario government add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for students 12 and older. The government declined to do so.

The province’s third wave led to the closure of all in-person education in Ontario earlier this year, together with a general lockdown. Will our fourth wave lead to the same unhappy outcome? We are surely heading in that direction. 

Can anything more be done in addition to the measures announced by the province and public health? 

Premier Doug Ford and Ontario’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore should make vaccination for coronavirus mandatory for attending in-class learning, and they could do the same for employees of the school system.

Participation in the new take-home rapid antigen screening program for students five and up must also become mandatory in order to attend in-class education.

In fact, in view of the spread of the virus throughout our community, rapid antigen testing should be available for everyone. It is now free for businesses and most recently for youngsters, but not for the general public.

Finding asymptomatic individuals before they can infect others would be an important step. Just recently, 12 members of the Sudbury Wolves were diagnosed positive for the coronavirus. None were ill and all had been fully vaccinated, but were nevertheless infectious.

If the province refuses to act, then Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, the medical officer of health for our region, should mandate the above measures. 

If she does not, or cannot, then it remains up to parents who believe in the importance of vaccination and fear the closure of our school system. Make your voices heard by our school boards. It remains up to the entire community because of the increasing danger of serious illness and another lockdown.

Give voice to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memorable phrase “The fierce urgency of now”. We can interpret the phrase today as urging government leaders, public health units and schools to stop wasting time and get down to the business of dealing aggressively with the coronavirus.

Dr. Peter Zalan is the former president of the medical staff at Health Sciences North, and a retired intensive care physician.