Gordon Lau would like to know how many schools in Vancouver have had students test positive for COVID-19 so that he can decide what level of fatherly concern he needs to impart upon his son in elementary school and his other one in high school.
The Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) authority only has two school exposures listed on its website – a secondary school in West Vancouver and an elementary in Vancouver. But Mr. Lau, chair of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, knows parents of kids at two other schools in Vancouver and at least one in another city under VCH control have received private notice about their children being at risk of a possible exposure on school grounds.
He said many parents of the roughly 50,000 students in Vancouver want the same level of transparency as their counterparts get from the neighbouring Fraser Health Authority, which had 23 schools across its massive jurisdiction listed as having an exposure on Thursday.
But Patricia Daly, Chief Medical Health Officer and vice-president of public health at Vancouver Coastal, said VCH is only posting the names of schools when an entire class or more could have been exposed. Other health authorities are listing schools each time a single student tests positive and attended during the period they were infectious.
“When we identify a whole class of students that are exposed, we know that may create anxiety in the community or it might become public so we are posting that,” Dr. Daly said in an interview.
Otherwise, VCH is privately notifying any school staff and parents of children who may have had contact with an infected child. She argues that posting the names of schools with one exposure could deter people from getting tested because they might worry about stigma.
That doesn’t sit right with many parents, according to Mr. Lau, who lives on Vancouver’s West Side.
“If the school next to my kid’s school has an exposure that doesn’t change my calculus for that day,” he said. “If every other school, or if 10 per cent of schools in Vancouver, report an exposure in a two-week period, then yes, okay, I will probably be talking to my kids about ‘Exactly how much are you wearing your mask in class?’ ”
Dr. Daly said VCH has decided on its approach mainly because staff have documented several cases where people found to have the disease had refused to get voluntarily tested because they were worried they would be discriminated against if the results came back positive.
“With COVID, there’s significant stigma that people have faced throughout the pandemic,” Dr. Daly said
Mr. Lau disagrees, saying parents don’t want to shame their peers but want to adjust their daily habits based on a more accurate picture of cases that touch the school system. Parents are finding out about smaller class exposures through journalists and on social media anyway, he said, and VCH’s refusal to follow its counterparts in publishing more granular data is eroding people’s confidence in their local public-health authority.
Fraser Health states on its school exposure page that it is listing all possible spreading incidents in part so “school staff, students and parents can be assured that Public Health is following up in their community and exposure risks are being mitigated to the best of our ability.”
Asked about this discrepancy between VCH and other health authorities, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said she approves of VCH’s current approach.
“I have full confidence that Vancouver Coastal is doing what we need them to do and that we are all in alignment about what we are talking about in terms of exposures within a school setting and what will be posted on websites as exposure events,” she said at Thursday’s pandemic briefing.
In a Tuesday interview, Dr. Daly said she and the province’s top doctor are not at odds.
“Dr. Henry and I talked about this and the expectation is that we post as appropriate and she feels that we’re doing exactly what’s expected,” Dr. Daly said.
“In our health authority, we will post when we feel it’s appropriate.”
Dr. Daly, who has also refused to release neighbourhood-level case numbers over fears positive people will be identified and discriminated against, said she and other VCH staff must keep stressing to the public that the rates of infections in schools are not an accurate gauge of the risks they face.
Schools are not driving the growth in new cases and these exposures only reflect the spread of the virus through the wider community, she added.
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