Rapid testing is underway after a more contagious COVID-19 variant was detected at seven schools in B.C.'s Fraser Health region.
Speaking to reporters on Monday afternoon, B.C. Health Minister Jennifer Whiteside said there has been no sign yet of transmission beyond the initial cases.
"It's very good news that the testing that's been done so far has indicated no transmission," Whiteside said. "What that tells us is that our safety plans are working."
So far, cases of the B.1.7.7 variant associated with the U.K. have been detected at five public schools and one independent school in Surrey, plus one public school in Delta. Those schools are:
- AHP Matthew Elementary - Jan. 26, 27 and 29
- Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary - Feb. 3-5, 8-12
- Surrey Traditional Elementary - Feb. 4, 5 and 8
- James Ardiel Elementary - Feb. 8, 10 and 11
- Tamanawis Secondary - Jan. 26 to Feb. 8
- Gobind Sarvar (Independent) - Feb. 8-9
- Hellings Elementary - Feb. 2-4
Health officials said they are investigating all cases, and that most appear to be linked to community transmission.
“Only those staff and students who have been identified as close contacts need to be tested and have been contacted. The schools will remain open,” Fraser Health said in a release.
The Surrey School District said 10 classes of students and 50 staff members have had to self-isolate at home, for a total of 293 impacted people.
“Fraser Health has taken the exceptional measures of isolating so many classes as they have and I think that’s a good precaution, but I’m like anyone else, of course I’m nervous,” said Jordan Tinney, superintendent for Surrey Schools.
Parents at Woodward Hill Elementary were notified about the variant on Saturday.
“Once it hits the home, it can spread like wildfire. There is a lot of concern within our parent community about this variant,” said Cindy Dalglish, the parent advisory council (PAC) president.
Dalglish says she’s confident the school and the district are doing everything they can to protect the community, but would like to see a stronger mask mandate, particularly in elementary schools.
Her PAC has given out masks to students to try and encourage them to wear them as much as possible, but wants stricter rules from the provincial health officer.
Dalglish said Surrey is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of its dense population, and high number of essential workers and multi-generational families.
She’d like to see a more regional approach to enforcing rules in schools, where districts can create policies based on their own needs.
That sentiment is echoed by the Surrey Teachers’ Association.
“There’s certainly some people who think the school should have been closed and have everyone go to remote learning for the next three weeks until Spring Break. I think that should be a tool that’s used more often,“ said president Matt Westphal.
Westphal would like to see reduced capacity in schools to allow for more distancing when there’s a spike in exposures, especially in light of how quickly the new variants spread.
Whiteside said officials need to fully understand what has happened in Surrey and Delta before they decide to change any policies.
"At the moment, we need to let this process unfold and find out precisely what happened," she added. "We will learn from this situation and if it is necessary to update the safety guidelines, that is something we are constantly, constantly looking at."
Fraser Health says the variant strain can transmit more quickly and easily but does not seem to cause more severe illness, nor interfere with the effectiveness of vaccines.
Meanwhile, the province has vastly increased its screening for COVID-19 variants. Deputy provincial health officer Dr. Reka Gustafson said B.C. adopted a new technology that's less work-intensive than whole genome sequencing – and that may mean more cases being detected.
"Since this new screening technology will have been implemented throughout British Columbia, we may in fact see an increased number of identifications of variants," she said.
B.C. used to test about 20 per cent of COVID-19 samples for variants using genome sequencing, and now tests about 70 per cent, according to Gustafson.