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Medical health officer says VCH won't list all school COVID-19 cases

Vancouver Coastal Health says listing all potential exposures in schools could lead to stigma, unnecessary worry
Dr. Mark Lysyshyn town hall

Editor's note: this story has been updated since first posting

The medical health officer responsible for the North Shore says Vancouver Coastal Health won’t publicly post all cases where exposure to COVID-19 has happened in schools – unless it's required to safeguard health.

Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, deputy chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, was responding Wednesday to questions about why VCH hasn’t listed all cases of known cases in schools where some students may have been exposed to the virus.

Vancouver Coastal Health’s decision not to name all schools where COVID-19 cases have been reported has been the subject of increasing scrutiny in recent days. Three West Vancouver high schools – Sentinel, West Vancouver Secondary and Collingwood private school – have sent letters out to parents in the past week, informing them of a possible COVID-19 exposure. In the case of Collingwood and Sentinel, groups of students have later been told to self-isolate at home for 14 days.

But only one school – Sentinel in West Vancouver – has appeared on the Vancouver Coastal Health public list of school exposures.

Lysyshyn said Wednesday that Vancouver Coastal Health will only list schools in situations where it’s not possible to notify those who may have been close contacts of the person with COVID-19.

Lysyshyn said the Public Health Act does not allow authorities to share information unless that’s needed to prevent risk to others.

“This is the protocol that’s been followed throughout the pandemic,” said Lysyshyn, noting cases of COVID-19 reported in other settings – like offices and restaurants – have also only been listed when the public needed to know.

Lysyshyn said there’s a concern that listing schools could lead to identifying students or staff who test positive and lead to blaming and stigma. That might make people reluctant to get tested, he said.

It could also result in parents deciding to keep their kids home from school when there’s no medical reason to do so, he said.

The position of Vancouver Coastal Health is at odds with the other provincial health regions, which have so far been publicly listing all schools where a student, teacher or staff member has tested positive for COVID-19 and has been in the school when they were infectious.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, the province’s medical health officer, was asked at a recent press conference why different health authorities appear to be taking different approaches to their public posts about cases in schools. She said there is only one provincial standard.

“As you know, we are also posting exposure events that are happening in schools around the province, to make sure that everybody is aware that we are working with schools and public health together to manage any cases that arise,” she said Monday.

But Lysyshyn said Wednesday that listing every exposure in schools would not be “consistent with our duties as the custodian of information collected under the Public Health Act. And so that's why we're not doing it.”

Lysyshyn said health officers understood only outbreaks of COVID-19 – where more widespread transmission was occurring within schools – would be publicly reported.

Teachers will only be informed if a student in their class tests positive if the teacher is considered a "close contact" of that student, and therefore at risk, he said.

West Vancouver Board of Education Chair Carolyn Broady touched briefly on the topic of COVID-19 cases in schools at the first board meeting of the school year, held online Tuesday evening. “I know many of you have questions and concerns, but there are many questions we cannot answer because of privacy issues,” she said.

Vice-chair Nicole Brown added it’s easy for students and parents to send out texts about rumours they hear very quickly. But she warned, “Instagram and Twitter often don’t have the best sources of information.”

The issue of COVID-19 cases was also raised at the North Vancouver Board of Education meeting Tuesday evening.

In response to a question from Trustee Megan Higgins, superintendent Mark Pearmain said he was not aware at this point of any COVID-19 exposures in North Vancouver schools.