The Delta effect: more than 600 Quebec schools already have COVID-19 cases this year

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Less than two weeks after Quebec’s back-to-school, the province is bearing out predictions about Delta, with almost 600 schools hit by COVID-19 cases—well over twice as many as this time last year.

Total cases in the province among kids under 10 are also soaring way above the levels from last September.

However, parents will be reassured to hear that the sharp increase in pediatric cases hasn’t led to a correspondingly big jump in severely sick kids.

To be sure, a few families are enduring this experience: six kids across Quebec are currently hospitalized for COVID-19, with two in intensive care. Recent U.S. data suggest that, keeping in mind the greater spread of Delta, the likelihood of hospitalization for infected kids isn't greater than with earlier variants. (Quebec children’s hospitals are packed, meanwhile, but with cases of other kinds of viruses.)

The school stats still have people watching closely, however, and have triggered the closure of over 100 classrooms.

“We are probably three to four weeks ahead of last year’s numbers,” said Olivier Drouin, the Montreal father who runs Covid Ecoles Quebec, the citizen-data website that tallies up COVID-19 cases in schools. 

Epidemiologists point out that this fourth wave started a little earlier than last fall’s second wave, which doesn’t account for the entire difference but has added to it.

620 SCHOOLS ALREADY HAVE REPORTED CASES

Besides the ongoing citizen count, the province is also releasing detailed statistics about pediatric COVID-19 cases and which schools are affected.

All the numbers show a major increase over 2020's back-to-school season.

Quebec back-to-school starts early, with a staggered re-entry beginning on Aug. 23 for some students. All were back in class by September.

Since Aug. 23, a total of 620 schools across the province have reported coronavirus infections, according to provincial data released Friday.

For comparison, around Sept. 10 last year, the province had officially listed 120 schools that either had cases or were pending confirmation of cases.

Covid Ecoles Quebec, which continually had a much higher count last fall due to the province’s statistical time-lag at the time, had listed 218 schools in total by the same date.

Either way, that’s only about a third, at most, of the 620 schools reported so far this year.

By now, COVID-19 cases has forced the closure of 116 classrooms, both public and private.

MORE THAN A FIVEFOLD INCREASE AMONG KIDS UNDER 10

The overall count of cases among children has also climbed sharply this fall.

Statistics in Quebec are divided between kids under 10 and youth 10 to 19. Most of the second group are vaccinated, with vaccines authorized for children over 12.

Looking only at the first group, the under-10 children, the weekly caseload has grown more than fivefold over this point last year.

The week of Sept. 6 in 2020, 93 cases were confirmed among children under 10, according to provincial data.

The following week it was 153, and the number stayed under 400 cases per week through the third week of October.

This week, by comparison, the province reported 523 cases in kids under 10—nearly six times the number from last year.

A WAVE THAT STARTED EARLY

The Delta variant is known to be far more transmissible than the earlier variants of COVID-19, and it’s now become dominant in Quebec in terms of the proportion of new cases.

However, there was also more community transmission around late August this year than there was in late August of 2020, noted Jesse Papenburg, a Montreal pediatric epidemiologist.

“The fact that we're seeing more infections in schools is, in part, due to Delta, but also, in part, due to the fact that this fourth wave has started a little earlier than the second wave last year,” he said.

“So, it's hard, I think, to compare September 1 to September 1, when community transmission was not the same … on that date.”

Drouin, the citizen data-collector, noted that last year it took until late September to reach anything close to the current level. On Sept. 25, 2020, he had recorded 468 schools in total with at least one COVID case, which is still well under this week’s total.

DELTA NOT MORE SEVERE IN KIDS, BUT BROAD VACCINATION IS KEY

None of the current numbers are necessarily a surprise, said Papenburg. And despite stories from the U.S. of hospitalized and dying children, new data this week from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control suggest that Delta doesn’t, in fact, affect children more severely overall than the earlier variants, he said.

The data looked at hospitalizations and emergency-room visits of children.

It is, as before, the most vulnerable kids who tend to be hospitalized and to die, Papenburg said—a good enough reason for those eligible to get vaccinated, in order to protect those who can’t.

The U.S. data showed that “the states that have the lowest vaccination rates are the ones that have the highest incidence in children of new COVID cases and also have higher COVID hospitalizations in pediatrics than previously,” in earlier waves, he said.

States with high vaccination rates showed children’s hospitalization rates that were “pretty stable” compared with earlier this year.

Simply put, so many more kids get infected with Delta, more of the most vulnerable ones get critically ill, a bigger “tip of the iceberg” in the relatively unvaccinated states.

The children with the greatest risk of getting severely ill include teens with obesity and kids with neurologic and neuromuscular conditions, he said.

Neuromuscular conditions include illnesses like cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy that make it hard for children to cough effectively and clear out their lungs.

Getting severely ill with COVID-19 isn’t the only risk, either. Montreal doctors are among those learning more about “long COVID,” very long-lasting symptoms that can follow an infection, among kids.

A TIME FOR PRUDENCE

Quebec, with its high vaccination rate, compares well with those U.S. states that haven’t seen a bump in pediatric hospitalizations.

But doctors are still reminding adults that the best thing they can do to protect kids is get the vaccination rate closer to 100 per cent.

“I think the message for parents and families is, if you are of the age that you can be vaccinated, please get vaccinated,” said Dr. Laurie Plotnick, the chief of the ER at the Montreal Children’s Hospital.

Quebec has taken some other smart steps recently, said Papenburg, though it’s a good idea for parents to stay prudent.

“We were definitely anticipating that were going to be more pediatric infections, there's no doubt, because of the transmissibility of Delta,” he said.

“We [pediatricians] are very happy that we have put in place certain measures in schools to try and keep [kids] as safe as possible, including the decision to have children in masks,” he said. “Wearing masks, I think, is the right choice in schools.”

Only kindergarten students are currently exempted from mandatory masks, but their parents can choose to give them masks.

“As a parent, I would certainly consider it even for children that are younger than those in first grade… if they think if the children can tolerate it,” said Papenburg.

Bringing back school bubbles like last fall’s would also likely be wise, he said.

If COVID-19 vaccines are approved for kids aged five to 11, that approval will most likely come sometime this fall, he said.

Quebec is “at a point where things are still a little bit uncertain as to which way this fourth wave is going to go and how severely,” he said. “Children are going to be affected… so my personal take at this point is, I think I'd rather be a little bit more cautious and see how things go.”

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