District Health Units Chief Medical Officers update

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At the last meeting of the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario, Director of Education, Laurie Corrigan, welcomed Dr. Paula Stewart, Medical Officer of Health with the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit [LGLDHU], to present an update to the Board regarding the current status of COVID-19 in Eastern Ontario and to discuss masking for students in the school setting. Both Dr. Paula Stewart and Dr. Paul Roumeliotis (EOHU) have been instrumental in guiding the Board through the creation of the re-entry plan, as well as in providing regular consultation on the return to school.

Dr. Stewart began by providing an overview of the local COVID-19 case data for the LGLDHU, and on behalf of Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, for the EOHU. The number of new COVID-19 infections presented in the data, represent those who are eligible for PCR testing, which includes a very small group of people who work in high-risk congregate settings, or those who are at high risk of severe disease. However, Dr. Stewart noted that this would still give a picture of the overall trend.

“You will notice that we still had a significant number of cases at the beginning of February, and that things have steadily continued to decline throughout the month,” explained Dr. Stewart.

Another indicator that is currently being tracked is absenteeism. The province has setup a website reporting page which includes daily data on school absenteeism. Data is submitted by schools to local public health units when absence rates are 30% above baseline.

“In our region, we have been doing very well, and when the school does reach that point, in most cases, it is unrelated to COVID-19 – for example a field trip or bus cancellations. When we consider the three indicators, the number of positive cases, the case positivity rate, and school absences, it demonstrates that we are heading in the right direction.”

When there is not an emergency, it means that everyone must implement measures to make a difference for those at risk. Live Well Alongside COVID-19 is being promoted by local public health to help communities implement a more sustainable approach to COVID-19. The community focus helps to prevent severe cases, protect the vulnerable, and ensure health care system capacity. It helps community members to consider risk factors, decide what’s important, and the precautions to be put in place when necessary.

“The vaccine is a critical piece that is helping us to live well alongside COVID-19. When the province lifts precautions, then it’s up to us as a community, to decide what we should do collectively to protect those who can become very sick with COVID-19,” noted Dr. Stewart.

Live Well strategies include healthy eating, physical activity, good sleep habits, social connections, and support, practicing social distancing, hand washing and masking, and staying at home when sick.

Mask mandates in schools have been associated with lower incidence of COVID-19 infection. Overall, Dr. Stewart noted that it is challenging to measure the independent impact of mask-wearing, as schools implement layered measures for prevention. Adherence to masking policies is typically higher in school settings, versus community settings, with increased compliance with age. Additionally, Dr. Stewart noted that no objective evidence has been found for reduced respiratory function in children that wore masks, and there has been no evidence of negative cognitive impacts. Studies on the psychological, communicative, and dermatologic impacts of child mask-wearing have concluded mixed results.

“Under new provincial guidelines, students in kindergarten are strongly encouraged, but not required to wear masks. Students in grades 1 through 12 are required to wear a mask indoors, in school, and on school vehicles.”

The masking policy for kindergarten students was initially implemented on November 8, 2021, under the direction of public health. The Board of Trustees voted to implement the new, updated provincial masking policy for kindergarten students moving forward.

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