There were 474 students and staff in the Island Health region infected with COVID-19 in the first six weeks of the school year, CHEK News has learned.
Students and staff accounted for nearly 16 per cent of all COVID-19 infections recorded in the Island Health region during the first six weeks of the school year, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
According to Island Health data, 440 students and 34 staff members tested positive for the virus between Sept. 8 and Oct. 17.
“This does not mean that the staff or student acquired COVID-19 at a school setting rather they identify as a student or staff who attend a school setting,” reads a statement accompanying the data.
Island Health only discloses information about exposures events and cluster cases in schools across the region and does not publicly disclose specific data regarding the number of students or staff infected.
Lack of available data ‘hugely problematic’ claims BCTF president
The B.C. government has faced repeatedly heavy criticism for the way it has handled communications and information, particularly as it relates to school exposures, for months.
Days before thousands of children were set to return to the classroom in September, Dr. Bonnie Henry announced that the province would no longer notify school administrators when a single exposure had been identified within its community — a decision that was reversed a few weeks following public outcry.
Terri Mooring, president of the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF), said the B.C. government and the regional health authorities have failed to provide accurate information about school exposures, clusters and other relevant data within a reasonable amount of time.
“It’s hard to get a picture of what is happening in the schools when there is such secrecy and a lack of transparency around the data,” she said.
British Columbia leaves it to regional health authorities — Island Health, Vancouver Coastal Health, Fraser Health and Interior Health — to post school exposure notifications on their websites, but only when “a person, either a staff member or student, attended school while infectious and when there is an increased risk of COVID-19 to the groups they were a part of” while infectious, according to the BCCDC website.
More than 80 schools were on Island Health’s exposure list at least once between Sept. 8 and Oct. 17 and there are currently over 30 schools on the list, including nearly a dozen in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District.
In Ontario, school exposure information is posted on either regional district or county websites, regional health authorities websites, or school district websites. Toronto District School Board and nearby Halton Region School Board both provide a list detailing the number of confirmed staff and student cases at each school. Meanwhile, Nova Scotia lists all schools with at least one COVID-19 exposure for the past 30 days.
The B.C. government does, however, provide monthly reports on the BCCDC’s website about exposures within the provincial K-12 school system — a practice it began in mid-October — but the data is not broken down by health authority region.
Mooring said providing information retrospectively does not help families or education workers make informed health decisions.
“It seems that B.C. is one of the places is that is reluctant to share that information even though we know they collect it because we get the information retrospectively, which is unfortunate because, at that point, it isn’t very helpful,” she said.
“We should be able to trust our health authorities to share timely, reliable information … and it seems that the provincial health officer is fine with this arrangement and that is hugely problematic.”
The latest BCCDC report, released Nov. 23, shows that were 2,975 exposure notification postings among 45 per cent of all schools in B.C. between Sept.7 and Nov. 13 and that there have been 382 COVID‐19 case clusters reported in 217 schools since the beginning of the school year. It also notes that the majority of infections among students and staff were acquired outside of school and “did not typically result in transmission” and when they did, it usually resulted in “one or two” other cases.
However, according to Mooring, some health authorities aren’t sharing exposure or cluster information on their website at all anymore, while others are late at posting information about clusters.
“If you’re in Northern Health, you are not getting all the exposure notifications even though we have communities there that have low vaccination rates,” she said, adding that there was a time when Island Health was the only health authority sending out information about clusters.
Mooring said there are also issues around contact tracing because it doesn’t include teachers — something the BCTF wants to see change. She also said the definition of exposure, outbreak and cluster vary between health authorities.
“Teachers are not a part of it and we have little say in it, honestly,” she said, later adding, “[Health authorities] don’t have similar definitions of what an exposure notification is, what an outbreak is, or what a cluster is.”
One noticeable difference between this school year and last school year is that school districts, at least within Island Health, are no longer posting exposure notifications on their websites or social media.
Mooring said the reason for that is because the provincial government has left certain aspects of communication to the health authorities. She also claims school districts have been told they cannot publicly post such information on social media or their websites.
“The whole communication is highly problematic and school districts should be able to share information about school exposures notifications but they have been told they can’t,” she said. “That is problematic because this lack of information leads to an undermining of the health authorities and a lack of trust and that doesn’t help anyone.”
Mooring said the BCTF would like to see the provincial government and its health authorities immediately become more transparent with the school exposure information.
“It is very problematic that we are not able to rely on our health authorities to give us timely, reliable, and fulsome information about what is happening in schools,” she said. “The actions by health authorities to withhold information about clusters and all the information about all the exposure notifications really does undermine public trust and that is a huge problem.”
Ministry disputes BCTF claims
The Ministry of Health told CHEK News in an e-mailed statement that all regional health authorities are “complying with the provincial health officer’s instructions to post potential exposure events on their websites.
“Web postings are for public awareness only, and are updated after an initial investigation is complete, and direct communication with affected individuals has occurred,” the ministry said in its statement, adding. “A lag between a positive lab test and a webpage update (if required) is to be expected and is not reflective of the public health process of contact tracing and case management.”
B.C.’s health ministry also appeared to dispute the BCTF’s claims about different definitions, saying the definitions for COVID exposures, clusters and outbreaks in schools are the same as those that public health advises regional health authorities to use in B.C.
“Each situation is different and they are carefully assessed by local public health teams, including [medical health officers]. MHOs apply their expertise in the course of these investigations, to manage each situation as effectively as possible,” the statement reads.
Furthermore, the Ministry of Health stressed that public health teams all health authorities investigate every positive COVID-19 case, and follow up with their close contacts through contact tracing.
“In terms of contact tracing times, the provincial goal remains to complete contact notification within 24 hours. We are achieving this goal in most cases around the province.”
CHEK News also submitted questions to Island Health but was instructed to send them to the provincial government because “Island Health, like all health authorities” follows Dr. Bonnie Henry’s guidance and approach to communications around school exposures.
The Ministry of Health, for its part, told CHEK News that “questions specific to what is happening on the ground on Vancouver Island should be referred to Island Health.”