Further testing finds variant from the United Kingdom in five B.C. schools

A padlocked gate is seen outside Cambridge Elementary School in Surrey, B.C., on November 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

SURREY, B.C. - Students or staff at five public schools in British Columbia have tested positive for the faster-spreading COVID-19 variant first discovered in the United Kingdom, health officials said Sunday.

A statement from the Fraser Health authority says it is working closely to manage exposures at four schools in Surrey and one in the Delta School District.

A statement from the Surrey School District to parents says the strain that originated in the U.K. at two of the schools were connected to positive cases dating back to Jan. 26 because testing for the variants take longer than the standard COVID-19 test.

The three-week delay is too long, said Sarah Otto, a professor in evolutionary biology at the University of B.C.

"We expect it to double every eight to 10 days, and so for every eight- to 10-day delay there's potentially twice as many other people who have caught it and not know about it."

The Fraser Health statement says it is working to identify any more connected variant cases to ensure immediate isolation and case management to stop further transmission.

"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, nor affect our ability to test for the virus," the statement says.

The schools involved are Woodward Hill Elementary, A.H.P. Matthew Elementary, Kwantlen Park Secondary and Tamanawis Secondary School in Surrey, along with Hellings Elementary School in Delta.

The authority's statement says only those staff and students who have been identified as close contacts of the patients need to be tested and they have been notified.

All the schools remain open.

Jordan Tinney, superintendent of the Surrey School District, tweeted notices late Saturday that had been sent to parents at the schools saying two classes and more than 20 people have been told to stay home at Woodward Hill.

It says three people each at Tamanawis high and Matthew elementary were direct contacts to those infected at each school and they've been directed to self-isolate and get tested.

A notice sent to parents on Saturday by the Delta School District says it received additional information that a person who attended Hellings elementary between Feb. 2 and 4 has tested positive for a variant.

There have been no other confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the school since the exposure, it says.

"Even though more than 14 days have passed since that exposure, out of an abundance of caution, Fraser Health reached out directly to one close contact of the individual with instructions for them to self-isolate and get tested for COVID-19," the statement says.

A statement from the BC Teachers' Federation says the government and health officials need to counter the new threat to the safety of schools.

The union says school districts need the authority to go beyond the established health and safety guidelines when necessary.

"This will help keep people in schools safe, but also prevent the variants of concern from spreading to vulnerable adults living in students' homes," says the statement from president Teri Mooring.

"We also need to see widespread rapid testing when a COVID-19 variant of concern shows up in schools. This is not the time to be conservative with testing."

Otto said the discovery of the variant is a call to the community and residents around those schools to ramp up their protections.

This would be the time to restrict visits to the store, double mask, mask outdoors and maintain a heightened level of caution, she said.

"There's some chance that we can stop the variant from establishing in British Columbia and that means in these areas we all have to have higher vigilance."

She said every week that the variants remain isolated in those community pockets is another week of vaccinations and saving lives.

Several health officials have warned that a third wave could be looming if the more contagious variants take hold.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 21, 2021.

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