Canada

Voluntary COVID tests begin in Ottawa to catch asymptomatic students, staff at schools

Manordale PS was chosen for a pop-up clinic on Sunday because Ottawa Public Health had declared an outbreak there, indicating transmission probably occurred at school.

OTTAWA - Manordale Public School in Ottawa Thursday Nov 26, 2020. Sandra in April. Tony Caldwell

Students, staff and their families at Manordale Public School are invited to a pop-up COVID-19 clinic on Sunday as the province rolls out a campaign to test asymptomatic people for the virus.

Voluntary testing of asymptomatic people in school communities will be done for the next four weeks in the COVID-19 hotspots of Ottawa, Toronto, Peel and York regions.

Manordale PS was chosen because Ottawa Public Health had declared an outbreak there, indicating transmission probably occurred at school. As of Friday, five students and one staff at the Nepean school had tested positive, the school board said.

The province hopes the new testing program will make it easier to track and prevent the spread of the virus in schools.

As of Friday, 4,470 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed at Ontario schools since they opened this fall.

However, the actual prevalence of the virus among students and staff and how much transmission is happening at schools is the subject of intense debate. Many children with COVID-19 have no symptoms or only mild symptoms.

“That may work well for the individual family, but it doesn’t work well for understanding the degree of spread (in the school).”

Rapid, non-invasive tests of close contacts could help identify children with mild or asymptomatic infections and result in greater compliance with testing and isolation recommendations, Thampi wrote in the journal article.

The type of test used for Ontario’s new school program is up to local health units.

At the Manordale PS test site, children will be given a different test than adults, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board said. “The child’s test will be done in the mouth and the front of the nose, and most children do not mind the test, according to Ottawa Public Health.”

Holding the clinic at the school might also make it easier for families to get tested.

That was the experience at Frank W. Begley elementary school in Windsor, which has experienced the largest school outbreak in Ontario.

The health unit in Windsor declared an outbreak on Nov. 17 and closed the school after three staff tested positive. A pop-up testing site was set up in a hospital parking lot for students, staff and family, but attendance was mediocre, so testing was moved to the school gym, said Scott Scantlebury, spokesperson for the Greater Essex County District School Board.

About 450 students, staff and family members were tested. As of Friday, that board reported 40 students and nine staff at the school had tested positive for COVID-19.

It was not known how many family members who got tested were found to have the disease or how many of all the people who tested positive had no symptoms. The Citizen asked the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, but a spokesperson referred the questions to the Ministry of Health, which referred them back to the health unit, which said the questions were under consideration.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board said testing would be conducted at “select schools” during the program.

Ottawa’s French Catholic school board said Ottawa Public Health had not yet asked for testing at its schools.

Ottawa Public Health said particular consideration for testing would given to schools where there were large number of close contacts recommended for testing.

“The focus of the school-based testing is to facilitate access for these contacts to get tested at or near their school. Depending upon the situation in a particular school, broader testing of those who are asymptomatic may be recommended to better understand the situation and to inform actions to prevent further transmission.”

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That presents a challenge for schools trying to keep the virus out by asking students and staff to screen themselves, Dr. Nisha Thampi, an infectious disease specialist at CHEO, wrote in a recent article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

A study of Alberta children under age 19 found that 35.9 per cent of those testing positive for COVID-19 between April and September reported no symptoms, she wrote.

That proportion may be higher than other studies reporting asymptomatic rates of between 15 to 20 per cent because Alberta has a strategy of widely testing close contacts of people with COVID-19, Thampi wrote.

Dr Nisha Thampi poses for a photo at CHEO in Ottawa Monday Dec 16, 2019. Nisha has come up with a way to reduce illness by helping kids wash their hand using a well known song. Tony Caldwell
Dr. Nisha Thampi is an infectious disease specialist at CHEO. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

Testing close contacts is important to limit the spread of COVID-19 spread in schools, Thampi said in an interview.

Currently, students and staff identified as close contacts of someone at school with COVID-19 are sent home to isolate for 14 days. In many cases, that’s the entire classroom. Close contacts could also include students who ride the same bus or attend before and after-school daycare.

Ottawa Public Health recommends close contacts get tested for COVID-19, but it’s not mandatory in order to go back to school.

Some parents may be reluctant to subject their child to the nasal swab test, Thampi said.

“Maybe in September parents were willing to take their kids for their first (nasal) swab, but, when it becomes their third or fourth, parents might say, ‘OK, this is very difficult for us to watch our kid getting this. Our kid is refusing to get it, so why don’t we just keep him home for (14) days?’

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