- Provinces want kids back in schools, but significant questions remain about testing, dealing with absences.
- ‘It’s not normal”: Provisions for assigning health-care workers who are COVID-positive but not sick are increasingly being considered.
- Unvaccinated will have to pay a health tax in Quebec, Premier Legault says.
- U.S. setting case, hospitalization records and some forecast peak of this wave is many days away.
- Explore: ‘Deflated, defeated’: An ER nurse speaks to CBC’s Front Burner about being on the front lines of this wave…. Ontario ready to deploy internationally-trained nurses to address hospital absences…. Canada back on the U.S. travel advisory list at its highest alert level…. LISTEN: CBC’s Quirks and Quarks on how shark antibodies could be utilized in future coronavirus outbreaks.
Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia plan on sending kids back to schools next week
Last week, parents worn down by the double duty of working and monitoring their school-aged kids groaned as the new year began with a Groundhog Day-vibe due to the return of remote learning.
But, as it stands now, it seems the absence from school buildings will be short-lived in most jurisdictions despite an active national case count that nears 400,000 even with limitations on testing.
Thousands of kids went back on Monday, with another, even larger batch set to resume in-person learning on Jan. 17. Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott spoke Tuesday about the mental health aspects of keeping kids away from their peers and schools two years into the pandemic, with a growing body of opinion, led by the New York Times, also advocating that remote learning is not practical for many parents and children, and even harmful in some cases.
Parents across the country are eager to know what will be different with respect to testing, case monitoring and the actual instruction of students in 2022, and the answers haven’t always been crystal clear.
Many provinces are communicating, as Nova Scotia is, on changes that include installing portable HEPA filtration systems in schools, and securing more masks and rapid tests ahead of Jan. 17.
Education Minister Becky Druhan told CBC Radio’s Mainstreet Halifax on Monday school boards in Nova Scotia have “a number of tools” to deal with staffing absences, including relying on available educators from other parts of the school or elsewhere in a region.
“We have educators with schools who aren’t assigned classrooms on a day-to-day basis and there is some flexibility there to move them into classrooms,” said Druhan.
The heads of Ontario’s largest teachers unions say they weren’t consulted about the decision, confirmed on Tuesday, that students there will resume in-person schooling on Jan. 17.
“We had to find out via social media,” said Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. “The courtesy wasn’t extended to us. It really sent the message to education workers that they’re not valued.”
Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said she similarly found out about the decision online, and doesn’t know what metrics the government is basing it on.
Ontario Health CEO Matt Anderson said at Tuesday’s briefing that schools don’t “drive up cases for our kids,” inferring that infections are largely happening at homes and other workplaces.
But some parents, including journalists who spend time on coronavirus stories, are confused as to what changes there will be to the testing process. Without a bountiful supply of tests to institute a ‘test to stay’ process, will the message be to keep kids away if they have any symptoms, with the rest to continue with in-person learning? And does the province have the flexibility the Nova Scotia minister spoke of if its staff members and teachers contract the virus?
Parents hope Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce will shed more light at a planned Wednesday news conference.
In Manitoba, Premier Heather Stefanson said at the beginning of the year that the remote learning period was meant to give school divisions time to develop plans and address staffing shortages. It appears they’re sticking with that plan, with Education Minister Cliff Cullen’s office sending out an email stating that the “government continues to make investments in the classroom to ensure students can succeed at school when they return on Jan. 17, 2022.”
British Columbia students headed back on Monday, with staggered break times, virtual assemblies and visitor restrictions in place. Schools will have access to three-layered masks despite calls from the B.C. Teachers’ Federation for N95s instead.
Students also returned in Alberta on Monday, with frustration apparent about unclear instructions from the provincial government and school boards on how it plans to contain Omicron infections.
Wing Li, an Edmonton-based parent and a volunteer with advocacy group Support Our Students Alberta, said she will continue tracking outbreaks in schools since the government has stopped contact tracing.
She said she has heard from parents who are relieved their kids are returning to school because they don’t have the resources to keep an eye on them and work at the same time.
“I think the narrative is sold that some of us want to shut the school down, but that’s not the case at all,” Li said. “We just want safety measures so that it’s not a complete disaster.”
From The National
Some workers could be called on to work in staffing crisis despite positive COVID-19 test
A new public health order that leaves it up to employers to decide which Albertans infected with COVID-19 should go to work is short on oversight and enforcement, health law experts say.
It was enacted Jan. 3 — just days after Health Minister Jason Copping announced the change, along with plans to cut Alberta’s mandatory isolation period from 10 to five days. Details of the order, which Alberta Health describes as a last-resort measure for critical services, were made public last week.
Critical workers who are symptom-free or have mild symptoms can be called back to work. There is no application process for the exemption, and return-to-work plans will not be reviewed by any government department. The order, signed by Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw, does not provide a list of eligible sectors.
“This order is unique in its stupidity, and unique in terms of its just sheer disregard for workers’ rights,” said Ubaka Ogbogu, an associate professor in the faculty of law, and the Katz Research Fellow in Health Law and Science Policy, at the University of Alberta.
“I can see it being used by a variety of industries that are not necessarily essential,” they added.
In a statement, Alberta Health spokesperson Christa Jubinville said the decision to bring infected workers back should only be made as a last resort to maintain services which, if disrupted, might endanger the public. The decision to provide the exemption was based on evidence that fully immunized people have shorter infectious periods, Jubinville said.
“The workers and worksites to whom this exception may apply are very limited.”
Alberta Health Services is beginning to see more workers off sick, spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in a statement to CBC News.
“This is now beginning to impact some health-care services, particularly some acute care services at rural sites where staff illness or isolation is leading to staffing challenges,” Williamson said.
If capacity becomes overwhelmed, AHS will redeploy staff. Services and surgeries could also be cut back, Williamson said.
The situation reflects the fact that those in charge of health-care systems and first responder staffing are struggling to provide adequate service given the rising number of infections the Omicron variant’s increased transmissibility.
For example, an internal document by The Ottawa Hospital dated Jan. 5 outlines its decision-making process for when health-care workers are allowed to work should they be exposed to or have COVID-19.
The hospital states that “if exceptionally critical to operations,” workers who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 may be asked to come into work whether they’re symptomatic or asymptomatic.
Doug Angus, a health-care policy and management expert and University of Ottawa professor, says it’s unusual, but Omicron’s transmissibility is pushng institutions into uncharted territory.
“It’s not normal. The situation has arisen just because of absolute necessity,” he said. “It’s the traditional ‘between a rock and a hard place’ and I think the health-care system … is trying to do best it could possibly do.”
Angus said as hospitals transition into calling in sick workers, they must provide “absolutely the best equipment they can wear and use” so the odds of transmitting COVID-19 becomes fewer. “It’s not 100 per cent foolproof, but … under the circumstances, it’s a risk that pretty well has to be taken.”
Nurses who CBC spoke to expressed concern over this policy, as they could risk infecting vulnerable patients should it become a reality.
“It just goes against everything that we do as nurses,” said one nurse at The Ottawa Hospital, who CBC agreed not to name because of their concern their job could be at risk if they speak publicly. “Our whole job is to protect the public and we don’t get to do that anymore … we can’t safely take care of patients.
Unvaccinated will have to pay a health tax, Quebec’s Legault says
On the same subject of a new coronavirus wave leading to new thinking, Quebec Premier François Legault made waves at a Tuesday news conference.
Last week, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said he thought provinces would begin to consider vaccine mandates. But Legault said Quebec is heading in another direction, by planning to impose a health tax on Quebecers who refuse to get their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in the coming weeks.
“We’re looking for a health contribution for adults who refuse to be vaccinated for non-medical reasons,” Legault said.
Legault did not say when the tax would take effect or how much it would cost, but he did say he wanted it to be significant enough to act as an incentive to get vaccinated — more than $50 or $100, he added. Legault said details would be revealed “in the coming weeks.” But the thinking apparently jibes with that of French President Emmanuel Macron, who expressed a desire last week to make life miserable for the unvaccinated.
Legault also announced that the interim public health director will be Dr. Luc Boileau, the current head of the province’s health-care research institute, the INESSS. Dr. Horacio Arruda announced his resignation on Monday after about 12 year in the post.
Arruda’s resignation came amid criticism of the Quebec government’s handling of the fifth wave — fuelled by an explosion in cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant, which has overwhelmed already beleaguered Quebec hospitals.
On Tuesday, Quebec reported 2,742 people in hospital, an increase of 188 from the previous day. There was a net decrease of seven in terms of intensive care patients for COVID-19, at 255.
The province reported 8,710 new cases of COVID-19 and 62 new deaths, the highest mortality total from a report in nearly a year.
Meanwhile, the CIUSSS du Nord-de-l’Île-de-Montréal is the fifth regional health board in the province to issue a Level 4 alert — the highest level in the province’s contingency plan to cope with COVID-19’s strain on the health-care system. Under the measures, hospitals will be able to close emergency rooms, delay up to 80 per cent of their surgeries and close urgent care departments such as cardiology and trauma centres, redirecting those patients elsewhere.
“I know the situation is tough but we can get through this together. We need to focus efforts on two things: getting the first, second and third doses of vaccine and reducing our contacts, especially with older people,” Legault said.
American COVID-culture wars, battles continue even as undesirable records are set
The United States reported 1.35 million new coronavirus infections on Monday, according to a Reuters tally, the highest daily total for any country in the world. While the U.S. has the capability to record and track cases more than most countries in the world, the demand for testing has strained public health institutions, meaning the number is likely higher.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. surpassed its record for most COVID-19 hospitalizations on Tuesday, at about 146,000. Some disease modellers predicting total hospitalizations could eventually reach 275,000 to 300,000 range when the peak of this wave is reached.
As the chart below indicates, there is a wide range of vaccination levels among states, a gap that reaches about 30 percentage points from highest to lowest.
Michigan’s record high COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations could peak in late January or early February before beginning to drop, state health officials there said Tuesday, while urging residents to help control the height of the crest.
“We have a choice to make: Do we want to work on bringing that peak down or do we just want to let this Omicron surge explode?” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, the state’s chief medical executive.
The number of hospital patients with the coronavirus in the state of nearly 10 million is now roughly 5,000 and could rise to around 8,000 under the most pessimistic scenario or increase slightly under the most optimistic model. The figure is being closely watched because hospitals already “are under immense strain,” said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Health authorities around the U.S. are increasingly taking the extraordinary step of allowing nurses and other workers infected with the coronavirus to stay on the job if they have mild symptoms or none at all.
Kevin Cho Tipton, a nurse at Jackson Memorial in Miami, said he understands why hospitals are eager to have employees come back after five days of isolation. Yet he worries about the potential risk, especially for patients at higher risk of infection, such as those receiving transplants.
“Yes, Omicron is less deadly, but we still don’t know much,” said Tipton.
Despite the ever-present toll, resistance to mitigation measures remains high in some states. Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse decided to impose a new temporary mask mandate in that part of Nebraska over the objections of Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and Gov. Pete Ricketts to help protect hospital capacity in that state. Ricketts said he may challenge the decision in court.
And the Republican-led Florida legislature opened a new session heralding their COVID-19 approach despite the fact more than 10,700 people who tested positive for COVID-19 were being treated in hospitals in Floridian hospitals.
“First and foremost, we kept Florida open and free,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson. “Faced with tremendous pressure and criticism at every step of the way, we held the line.”
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