The Fraser Health Authority (FHA) says immediate steps are being taken to streamline screening for COVID-19 variants so it can identify and notify positive cases more quickly.
On the weekend, FHA confirmed that Hellings Elementary in North Delta as well as six other schools in Surrey have had exposures to the COVID-19 UK variant.
Hellings had an earlier notification that someone infected with the coronavirus attended the school on Feb. 2 and 4 and further testing, which took some time, revealed it was an exposure to the variant.
Only those staff and students who were identified as close contacts need to be tested and have been contacted, according to FHA, adding that the schools will remain open.
In an afternoon media conference on Monday, the FHA also noted that with new measures in place, a range of actions were organized quickly depending on the exposure assessment, from rapid testing of a few close contacts to testing of several classes.
Fraser Health Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Elizabeth Brodkin said that there’s been no additional cases found, so far, of the COVID-19 variant indicating it has been transmitted at the schools.
About 300 people had been tested and further testing is taking place, she said.
The earlier COVID-19 testing only confirmed exposures at the school, but it took a couple of weeks to determine the UK variant was involved, so rapid testing will determine if others have the variant as well, said Brodkin.
Those rapid test results will not specify which specific variant is involved, so the samples would have to go for further regular analysis to determine the type of variant.
Noting safety measures in place at schools are robust and the transmission rate within schools remains low, she added that coronavirus cases in schools have been the result of transmission in the community.
Fraser Health on Monday also said it is proactively implementing “new, aggressive actions immediately” to respond to increasing COVID-19 cases in the region, including variant cases.
The enhanced management strategies for case finding and contact management are aimed at helping prevent transmission.
They include, among other things, expanding COVID-19 testing recommendations to include all high-risk contacts of individuals who test positive for the virus, regardless of whether they are experiencing symptoms.
Provincial Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside, at a separate news conference Monday, said news of the variant at schools is something parents and staff have been dreading.
It’s always been a possibility as cases in schools mirror transmissions in communities, but the low transmission rates within schools show that the safety plans are working, Whiteside said.
She added that where safety plans have been adhered to, there’s been low transmission.
Réka Gustafson, the province’s Deputy Provincial Health Officer, said increased screening and the implementation of rapid testing will result in confirmation of more cases of COVID-19 variants.
She noted the mode of transmission of variants are the same as the COVID-19 strain that’s been around for over a year, but it’s much more efficient.
She added based on what they know about the variants, they aren’t recommending further changes to the mask policy.
In an early Monday morning statement, the B.C. Teachers Federation said it is time for decisive action by government and health officials to counter the new threat to the safety of schools.
“It’s imperative that staff, students, and parents within these school communities follow the directions of health officials," said the BCTF. “In the broader community, we need people to do all they can to limit the potential spread of these variants, so they don’t find their way into our schools, however, it’s clear that the existing measures are not enough.”