New school year, but with some different pandemic issues
One year ago this time, Canada was enjoying a relative lull in its pandemic battle but it wasn’t clear when a COVID-19 vaccine would be available.
The scenario is entirely different as the vast majority of elementary and secondary students in Canada begin a school year this week, although there are still a number of concerns for parents, educators and health experts.
On the one hand, Canada has been among the world leaders in vaccine uptake — with 67.7 fully vaccinated nationally, according to CBC tracking, a figure that includes a considerable number of high school and senior elementary students. But the highly transmissible delta variant has put a proverbial spanner in the works, and those under 12 still aren’t be eligible to be vaccinated.
Ontario’s education minister is assuring the public that the two million students in that province will be attending safe schools because of measures in addition to vaccination such as masking and rapid tests for unvaccinated school staff.
In an interview with CBC’s The Morning Edition in Kitchener-Waterloo, Stephen Lecce said the province has made great strides in improving air ventilation.
“In Waterloo, there’s over 1,000 HEPA [high efficiency particulate air] units within classrooms and learning spaces this September, and that’s a physical thing you can touch,” said Lecce, adding that about 25 to 30 per cent of schools in Ontario are without mechanical ventilation.
Although the province is launching a new take-home COVID-19 testing project this week for some schools, the government is facing criticism that the program is too limited.
The pilot project by Ontario’s Education Ministry will allow students and staff who are identified as at risk of COVID-19 because of exposure to a confirmed case to take home a testing kit, but only in targeted secondary schools in 13 public health units, which leaves out the majority of students.
“We aren’t seeing the comprehensive in-house testing program that so many have been calling for and that we’re seeing in other jurisdictions,” NDP education critic Marit Stiles in an interview Tuesday.
The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said Tuesday that with case rates at the level currently seen in Ontario, broad-based rapid antigen testing of all students across the entire school system would not be an effective or efficient way of slowing the spread of COVID-19
“We’ll use that tool if and when community rates are high, but that’s much higher than where we’re at right now,” said Moore.
That flies in the face of advice from rapid test advocates like epidemiologist Dr. Michael Mina of Harvard, who insist it should be done as a regular practice to both get on top of outbreaks and to prevent disruptions for classmates who haven’t tested positive, allowing them to stay in school while their parents don’t have to worry as more are called back to in-person employments. Last year, entire classes were pulled back to remote learning while some families waited in line for hours at Ontario COVID-19 assessment centres.
Meanwhile, in Saskatchewan and Alberta, the inconsistency of COVID-19 mitigation measures across some school districts and public health units, including for mask-wearing, has some doctors and even mayors calling for those provincial governments to help ensure a more uniform approach.
From The National
Canada has opened up its borders to fully vaccinated foreign travellers. How big are the risks?
Canada on Tuesday opened its borders to fully vaccinated non-essential foreign travellers from across the globe, allowing them to skip the 14-day quarantine requirement.
Canada kept to the Sept. 7 schedule announced early in the summer despite current daily case rates nationally that are anywhere from three to five times higher than a late July-early August valley, largely spurred by the delta coronavirus variant.
“Certainly the optics aren’t ideal, as we are in a fourth wave and cases continue to climb across the country,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician at Toronto General Hospital.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has pointed to a low positivity rate of 0.19 per cent last month in random tests of travellers, which included people who are fully vaccinated. As well, any travellers who’ve received vaccines in other countries not among the handful approved by Health Canada are still required to quarantine.
Most experts who spoke to CBC News didn’t expect to see an avalanche of new cases because of the new travel change.
“I would argue that the neighbour in the supermarket who isn’t wearing their mask properly above their nose and actually hasn’t been vaccinated is a higher risk than the person crossing a border,” said Dr. Marek Smieja, scientific director of McMaster HealthLabs and a professor of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton. “I actually think it is a prudent thing to be making it easier for people to travel, particularly for those who are fully vaccinated.”
The Economist seemed to agree in a recent article, arguing that stopping the importation of new variants is all but impossible, and that the right to travel “should be curtailed only when limits will clearly save lives.” Temporary, transparent and consistent measures should be instead enacted to limit virus spread, the authors said.
Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton in southern Ontario, called Canada’s move at this date a “calculated risk.”
“The bottom line is we are going to have to do this at some point in time, and there will be another variant. The world is not completely immunized by any means.”
World roundup: Vaccine alliance lowers delivery expectation, hundreds of maternal deaths in Americas linked to COVID-19
The UN-backed program to get vaccines to the neediest people in the world has again scaled back its target to ship doses this year, projecting about 1.425 billion doses will be available through the end of December.
That represents about a 30 per cent reduction from its original 2021 target of two billion doses, which is now believed achievable sometime in the first quarter of 2022.
Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, says the COVAX program that it runs has faced setbacks. Those include export restrictions from hard-hit India, a key producer of vaccines, as well as regulatory hurdles for some vaccine candidates and manufacturing troubles elsewhere.
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday he was “appalled” at comments by a leading association of pharmaceutical manufacturers who said vaccine supplies are high enough to allow for both booster shots and vaccinations in countries in dire need of jabs but facing shortages. Tedros called for a “moratorium” on booster shots through the end of the year.
While it is estimated that slightly less than 30 per cent of the global population has been fully vaccinated, in nearly all of Africa and in several countries in Asia, the Middle East and the Americas, that total is less than 10 per cent.
Just 28 per cent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 so far. That’s according to the latest briefing Wednesday from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which said that vaccination figures vary widely, with one-fourth of regional countries yet to vaccinate even 20 per cent of their people.
Guatemala and Nicaragua are below 10 per cent vaccine coverage, while Venezuela is at slightly more than 11 per cent. Less than one per cent of Haiti’s population has been inoculated against COVID-19.
PAHO also put out an urgent call to countries in the Americas to prioritize pregnant and lactating women in the distribution of COVID-19 shots. More than 270,000 pregnant women have had COVID-19 in the Americas during the pandemic and more than 2,600 have died, officials said.
In Germany, the head of the disease control agency says the vaccination rate needs to increase to avoid another wave of the coronavirus, warning “the pandemic is not over yet.”
Lothar Wieler of the Robert Koch Institute said Germany could experience another wave in cases in the fall, with the potential of overwhelming the country’s health system. On Wednesday, the institute reported 13,565 confirmed cases. While infection rates have been stagnant in recent days, the number of hospitalizations has increased in Germany. The number of patients in intensive care has almost doubled to more than 1,300 in the last two weeks, Wieler said.
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