The snowball effect of COVID-19 testing and tracing delays, the slow transmission of results and confusing messages from schools and public-health officials are creating anxiety among parents across the country – even when their children don’t have the virus.
Globe and Mail examinations of the testing and contact-tracing systems across the country in the past week showed most jurisdictions struggle to deal with cases in the 24-hour period required for effective management. Across the country, waits often stretch into several days.
Delays are often even longer when results are negative, forcing children into isolation while their parents wait anxiously.
Megan Collins, founder of the Johns Hopkins eSchool Initiative which tracks school-reopening policies, said testing and tracing are important measures for safely opening schools. Standards and guidelines for testing, tracing and reporting are lacking in many North American jurisdictions, she said.
“This has led to a lot of unease among parents and teachers,” Dr. Collins said in an interview. “Turnaround is one of the pieces. If it takes seven days to get a test result back, the value of having a test is not as great.”
To speed up the process, public-health authorities in cities such as Montreal and Toronto have started allowing school principals to send classes home for isolation when they have suspect cases. Alberta recently started notifying possible contacts in schools by e-mail.
Nancy Boogaart sent two of her five children back to school in Calgary this week after a series of issues over several days: one child and several classmates had a cough while another child had contact with a case on a sports team. The entire family got tested and both children were absent from school while they waited nearly six days over Thanksgiving weekend for negative test results.
Ms. Boogaart said they spent the time in isolation listing dozens of contacts just in case the results were positive.
“They really need to focus on delivering these tests,” Ms. Boogaart said. “You should have these results within 48 hours, whether it’s positive or negative.”
Matthew Higginbotham’s sons went back to school this week in Pincourt, Que., just outside Montreal, after an eight-day wait for negative test results after the eldest child caught a cold. Fearing the younger one might be an asymptomatic coronavirus carrier, Mr. Higginbotham also kept him home until the negative results were returned.
Mr. Higginbotham’s family is in the Montéregie regional health authority south of Montreal, which has been plagued with testing delays. A representative of the district was unable to say last week how long testing typically takes there.
“They said there was a mess-up at the lab. It did not fill me with confidence,” Mr. Higginbotham said. “An eight-day wait is rough.”
Joy Henderson of Scarborough, Ont., found out on Oct. 6 that a student in her son’s Grade 10 class tested positive – more than a week after the infected child had last been in school. Then followed a five-day lag for test results. Two days after the boy returned to school with a clear test, they received news of another positive case in his school.
“It’s kind of a roller coaster right now,” said Ms. Henderson, who has three sons in school. “It’s exhausting to be honest. And it’s easy to see how with these delays it could snowball. Unless the system is running like a machine it’s not going to work.”
Even when things move swiftly, anxiety can arise.
Alya, the mother of a Grade 1 student in Montreal, recently had her child sent home after the caregiver in her child’s pre- and after-school program tested positive. Alya, who recently received cancer treatment, said it wasn’t clear whether the child should be tested or isolated. (Alya is a pseudonym. She didn’t want her name published because she received angry comments from other parents when she previously criticized school practices on a school Facebook page. She fears more repercussions.)
Within 24 hours, the principal informed parents that public-health officials had decided the children were not at risk from the caregiver, who wore a mask. They were allowed back to school the following Monday.
Still, Alya has unanswered questions. For one, how was her daughter considered not-at-risk since she spent up to 2½ hours a day in close quarters under the infected caregiver’s supervision, up until she apparently fell ill?
“The whole thing felt very nonchalant,” Alya said. “I still don’t know how they were able to establish in a few hours that this contact was not dangerous. It feels like they are erring on the side of not causing panic more than anything, and it makes me uncomfortable.”
Dr. Collins emphasized that test-and-trace is an important measure, but only one on the list of effective steps. Washing hands, distancing when possible, masks, ventilation in classes, keeping classes from mixing are also important, she said. Schools are applying such measures to widely-varying degrees across Canada.
Parents need to keep kids home with illness and suspected contacts despite frustrations and hardships, she added, as the parents in this story all did.
“It’s hard to get all the pieces right, but it’s important to get enough of them right and have them fit together,” Dr. Collins said. “What underlies all of these things is having a school strategy that is transparent to parents so they understand how things are done, where to go for information. [Officials] must build trust in the process.”
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