Ontario’s Niagara public-health unit will offer vaccines to thousands of education workers this week, part of a small but growing effort to minimize disruptions for students attending school.
Only in Surrey, B.C., has a health unit vaccinated more than 90 per cent of its school-based staff as doctors and educators across the country call on provincial governments to prioritize those who work with students as concerns grow about more transmissible variants of the virus that causes COVID-19.
The issue of vaccinating teachers and school staff can become heated, especially if it takes priority over workers in factories and warehouses, the site of large COVID-19 outbreaks. Yet, observers argue that both should be vaccinated at the same time, and if governments want schools to remain open, public health should take steps to protect the people and the students in those buildings. In the United States, about 80 per cent of school staff and childcare workers have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, and as it spread around the world, it mutated into new forms that are more quickly and easily transmitted through small water droplets in the air. Canadian health officials are most worried about variants that can slip past human immune systems because of a different shape in the spiky protein that latches onto our cells. The bigger fear is that future mutations could be vaccine-resistant, which would make it necessary to tweak existing drugs or develop a new “multivalent” vaccine that works against many types, which could take months or years.
Not all variants are considered equal threats: Only those proven to be more contagious or resistant to physical-distancing measures are considered by the World Health Organization to be “variants of concern.” Five of these been found in Canada so far. The WHO refers to them by a sequence of letters and numbers known as Pango nomenclature, but in May of 2021, it also assigned them Greek letters that experts felt would be easier to remember.
- Country of origin: Britain
- Traits: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are still mostly effective against it, studies suggest, but for full protection, the booster is essential: With only a first dose, the effectiveness is only about 66 per cent.
- Spread in Canada: First detected in Ontario’s Durham Region in December. It is now Canada’s most common variant type. Every province has had at least one case; Ontario, Quebec and the western provinces have had thousands.
- Country of origin: South Africa
- Traits: Some vaccines (including Pfizer’s and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s) appear to be less effective but researchers are still trying to learn more and make sure future versions of their drugs can be modified to fight it.
- Spread in Canada: First case recorded in Mississauga in February. All but a few provinces have had at least one case, but nowhere near as many as B.1.1.7.
- Country of origin: Brazil
- Traits: Potentially able to reinfect people who’ve recovered from COVID-19.
- Spread in Canada: B.C. has had hundreds of cases, the largest known concentration of P.1 outside Brazil. More outbreaks have been detected in Ontario and the Prairies.
DELTA (B.1.617 AND B.1.617.2)
- Country of origin: India
- Traits: Spreads more easily. Single-dosed people are less protected against it than those with both vaccine doses.
- Spread in Canada: All but a few provinces have recorded cases, but B.C.’s total has been the largest so far.
- Country of origin: Peru
- Traits: Spreads more easily. Health officials had been monitoring it since last August, but the WHO only designated it a variant of concern in June of 2021.
- Spread in Canada: A handful of travel-related cases were first detected in early July.
If I’m sick, how do I know whether I have a variant?
Health officials need to genetically sequence test samples to see whether it’s the regular virus or a variant, and not everyone’s sample will get screened. It’s safe to assume that, whatever the official variant tallies are in your province, the real numbers are higher. But for your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you contract a variant or not: Act as though you’re highly contagious, and that you have been since before your symptoms appeared (remember, COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically). Self-isolate for two weeks. If you have the COVID Alert app, use it to report your test result so others who may have been exposed to you will know to take precautions.
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In the Niagara region this week, around 9,000 education workers are eligible for a vaccine. The public-health unit had offered vaccines to education staff who work with students with special needs in late March.
David Dec, chair of Niagara’s Community Co-ordination Task Force for COVID-19 Vaccination, said that with schools closed this week for the April break, it was a good opportunity to reach those who work in those buildings. The task force met this month to discuss prioritization. Around the time it announced that teachers and school staff would be eligible, Dr. Dec said that 29 out of about 170 schools in the area had COVID-19 cases and had dismissed groups of students to self-isolate.
“There’s no one thing that’s going to prevent schools from opening or closing but it’s tough to argue this won’t help,” Dr. Dec said. “It may not be the deciding factor [in keeping schools open], but if you have any chance at all, then this is going to put you in a better position.”
Students across the country have had their learning disrupted this year because of COVID-19 cases in their classrooms. Schools in Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region were temporarily closed last week – and students were shifted to remote learning – as public-health officials said they are being forced to overrule the Ontario government and implement measures needed to slow an alarming rise in COVID-19 infections. Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health, Vera Etches, warned on Friday that schools could remain closed after the spring break because of rising community transmission.
Prachi Srivastava, an associate professor of education and global development at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., said school staff are essential workers and vaccinating them is one measure to keep schools open. She said governments say that schools should be last to close, but are hesitant to act in protecting them and the millions of students who attend.
“If we think that schools are essential and if we think they are the last to close and the first to open, why is [vaccinating teachers and school staff] a question?” she asked. “Why do we think keeping schools open is optional?”
Brian Barker, the president of the Niagara local of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said public health’s decision to prioritize educators was “imperative” to keep them and their students safe. He was also concerned that the provincial government hadn’t implemented proper measures to keep schools safe.
The Fraser Health Authority in B.C., unlike other regions of the province, said it was vaccinating more than 10,000 educational staff in classrooms. “The Surrey community has seen the highest rates of COVID in the region, and this has been reflected in what we have seen in Surrey schools,” said Fraser Health spokeswoman Carrie Stefanson.
The Quebec government, too, said recently that teachers and other school staff are in the priority essential worker group for vaccine eligibility.
The Ontario government said this past week that it would expand vaccine eligibility to education workers in Toronto and Peel hot spots, and to those who work with special-education students across the province. This came a day after Health Minister Christine Elliott said vaccinating teachers would take away supply for seniors, with the province’s rollout plan based on age and risk. “The variants are moving very, very quickly, and we want to make sure that we can get to the groups that are most devastated by this,” she told reporters.
Nisha Thampi, the medical director of infection prevention and control at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, said it’s important to vaccinate adults who work in schools as supply increases. The health and safety measures, including masks and physical distancing, help but vaccinating education workers will be important in adding a layer of “stability” to learning, she said.
“We know that in-person learning is valued. We know there are only a few months left of school, but we’re facing a resurgence of activity with more infectious variants,” Dr. Thampi said. “We would do well to add this very important layer of protection to support a stable reopening of schools.”
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