The best way to protect students returning to school from COVID-19 is for all the adults in their lives — from teachers to bus drivers and parents — to get vaccinated, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Tuesday.
There is still no approved vaccine for the more than 600,000 children in B.C. under age 12, which makes it especially important for everyone eligible to be immunized, she said.
“Those are the people that the rest of us need to protect by stopping transmission of this virus and by being immunized ourselves,” said Henry. “That’s the most important thing we can do.”
Some parts of the world, particularly in the U.S., have seen a rise in cases in children, including severe cases, particularly in those under the age of 12, said Henry, adding those cases are directly linked to low community vaccination rates. In B.C., rates of infection in children remain low, she said.
While there has been a slight increase in the number of children under 10 and in the 10 to 19 age group contracting the virus, they are much less likely to have severe illness or to end up hospitalized or in an intensive care unit, “and that is holding,” said Henry.
Between July 1 and the end of August, seven children under age 10 were admitted to hospital with COVID-19 in B.C., including one in ICU, while seven kids ages 10 to 17 were admitted to hospital, of whom two ended up in ICU. All 14 recovered, including the three who received intensive care. Since the beginning of the pandemic, two children under age two have died of COVID-19 in B.C., but no teens.
Once schools reopen, clusters and outbreaks will be reported, but there will no longer be school-wide notifications via letters over one case of COVID-19 in a school — instead, individuals at risk will be contacted.
“We don’t expect to see an explosion of cases,” said Henry. “It is absolutely not surprising that we will see an increase of cases, and they’re related to communities where we are seeing increased transmission in the community.”
The infection-control measures used in schools last year worked and will be used again, but this time, vaccination is also a factor, she said.
“It’s really important, because your child’s risk is directly related to the risk in their family, of the adults in their family, and the older siblings,” said Henry. “We already are with the school boards to make sure that we have vaccines available in the first few weeks of school.”
Henry said health officials expect a vaccine for six- to 11-year-olds will be available as early as this fall.
Other measures to protect children include masking and staying home when ill, cleaning hands regularly and avoiding large crowds, particularly if they include unvaccinated people. Those in grades 4 and older are required to wear masks in school, while younger children are strongly advised to do so.
Work has also been done to improve ventilation in schools, said Henry.
She said B.C. is currently focused on vaccinating young adults so they can safely return to post-secondary education in the next few weeks.
“We need to get back to school,” Henry said. “We need to get back to university and college. We know those are things that are important for us as a society and for our future.”