Health officials are moving towards a more “endemic” approach to managing COVID-19 that stresses minimizing societal disruption, says Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, deputy medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health.
The Omicron variant, a highly transmissible but milder form of the virus, has forced a change in approach, said Lysyshyn.
“It’s simply not feasible to handle it in the way we’ve handled previous variants,” said Lysyshyn.
Vaccines haven’t proven effective at preventing regular infections of Omicron but they are still very effective at preventing serious illness, he said. “Now we need to work on that third goal – minimizing societal disruption.”
That means beginning to manage Omicron in a similar way to other seasonal respiratory viruses, he said.
Lysyshyn made his comments as part of a pre-recorded question-and-answer session with superintendents of the two North Shore school districts.
Both superintendents and Lysyshyn emphasized the importance of getting kids back to living and going to school in as normal a way as possible. “That’s what the next phase of the pandemic is going to be about,” said Lysyshyn – taking steps to reduce risks while acknowledging they can’t be eliminated entirely without significant downsides.
Both school and extracurricular activities provide kids with a chance to connect with trusted adults and interact with friends, both key to their social and emotional development, said Lysyshyn.
Pandemic restrictions hard on kids
Both Chris Kennedy, superintendent of the West Vancouver School District, and Mark Pearmain, superintendent of the North Vancouver School District, said restrictions brought in with the pandemic over the last two years have been detrimental to the mental health of kids and teens.
Already with the resumption of sports and other children’s activities this school year, “we’re seeing a huge difference in kids,” said Kennedy.
Lysyshyn said B.C. had fewer school closures than most jurisdictions and in hindsight “we think we made the right decision to keep kids in school.”
So far, there haven’t been any school closures required because of lack of staff, said the superintendents – something that was feared a possibility with the reopening of schools after Christmas.
“We have not even come close to that scenario at all,” said Pearmain.
Absentee rates dropping in schools
Kennedy said absentee rates in West Vancouver have been “hovering below 10 per cent each day” and have recently improved, with attendance rates for both students and staff going up.
Mandatory vaccinations for teachers are unlikely in either school district given the already high rate of vaccination, said Lysyshyn.
Providing COVID-19 vaccines with other regular childhood vaccines in schools is a move being considered in some schools where there are barriers to access, said Lysyshyn.
Parental consent would be required ahead of time before vaccinating any children of elementary-school age, he added.
Questions about on masks and rapid tests
Lysyshyn also fielded questions on masks and rapid tests, saying parents have to decide for their own family which mask is best, but generally one that kids find comfortable and will consistently wear is more important than any specific type of mask. “Most people wearing masks most of the time is what reduces risk,” he said.
Availability of rapid antigen tests is limited by supply right now, he said, adding the province is rationing its supply for use in the most important settings like hospitals and long-term care homes.
Testing isn’t recommended for most people now, said Lysyshyn, so most people who get COVID-19 won’t even be sure they had it. Health authorities now recommend people with symptoms just stay home until they feel well again.
Greater use of outdoor learning and integrating use of technology into classrooms are adaptions to the pandemic that will likely continue after COVID-19 has faded into the background, said Kennedy.
Pearmain said the pandemic has also underlined the “value of schools in terms of society in general” for providing families with stability and a crucial “sense of normalcy.”
Schools have also stepped up to support families in crisis during the pandemic, said Pearmain, “doing things that go way beyond our traditional scope.”