Variants of concern drove school closures in Woodstock, in-school spread limited: Top doctor

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The spread of variants of concern in Woodstock contributed to three school closures over the past six weeks, the area’s medical officer of health says, though in-school spread of the virus is “limited.”

Dr. Joyce Lock, Southwestern public health’s medical officer of health, said variants of concern have been driving the recent spike of COVID-19 cases in Woodstock, including in city schools.

“The feature in Woodstock has been the introduction of the variant of concern, B117, which spreads much more quickly,” Lock said.

Lock said she is not implementing a class order to close local schools, unlike similar moves in Toronto and Peel hotspot regions.

“I am not considering a class order to close schools. This does not mean I won’t, but the time is not now,” Lock said.

Woodstock has had three school closures in the past several weeks: St. Michael’s and St. Patrick’s Catholic elementary schools were each closed for two weeks in March after dozens of students and staff were exposed to the virus.

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And last week, Woodstock’s Central public school told parents it was shutting its doors until after the April school break, even though had been just one confirmed case of the virus in the school population.

Lock said that as of Thursday there were nine cases in the Southwestern public health region with at least one active case, and the health unit’s team had worked on 23 cases in the last two weeks where the individual had attended school while infectious.

While not an outbreak, Thames Valley District school board officials said the decision to close Central public school was based on the high number of students and staff required to quarantine.

Students at St. Michael’s and St. Patrick’s have returned to class, and the London District Catholic school board is not currently reporting any cases associated with the schools. Students at Central public school are expected back in class April 19.

Lock said variants of concern can be more contagious so spread easily among family members, which in turn means kids in school are affected. Spread within schools themselves is “limited,” she said.

“What’s happening is it’s spreading through families. Families have children in multiple grades and sometimes (it spreads) between families or individuals when households that are not related get together at a social event,” Lock said.

“Before long, you have multiple grades impacted, and that leads to that several or many classes in the school have to be sent home.”

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The best thing for families to do is to avoid socializing with people outside their households – as hard as that may be – and to ensure that everyone in the home stays home if someone has COVID-19 symptoms.

“We see these variants of concern spread very quickly within households,” Lock said. “Within days, everyone in the family has the viral infection.”

Families should avoid visiting or having visitors in their home – especially in light of provincial stay-at-home orders announced Wednesday, and continue to stay home as much as possible.

Lock said their current guidance includes having all household members stay home if one person has COVID-19 symptoms.

“Not only do they need to stay home, everyone in the family should stay home until that person gets the test done and knows for sure they don’t have COVID,” she said. “Right away, the whole family should stay home and that will help to keep schools open.”

Letters sent home from the health unit to students who have been deemed a close contact of a confirmed case include testing instructions for both kids and adults. Lock said kids should be tested seven days after exposure, while adults should be tested immediately and again on day 10.

On Wednesday, the provincial government announced broad stay-at-home orders, restricting retail and many other businesses for four weeks.

Teachers in those hotspot areas will qualify to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday.

In Oxford County, the London District Catholic school board is currently reporting one active case at St. Jude’s Catholic elementary school in Ingersoll. The Thames Valley District school board is reporting active cases at Algonquin public school, Central public school, College Avenue secondary school, Hickson Central public school, Roch Carrier French Immersion public school and two cases at Southside public school.

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