ATHABASCA/BARRHEAD/WESTLOCK - More than 170 active cases of COVID-19 have been identified in the Town & Country readership area as of Sunday morning and outbreaks of COVID-19 have been declared at multiple local schools.
The Government of Alberta's geospatial map states that 75 active cases have been identified in the County of Barrhead, 72 active cases in Westlock County and 27 active cases in Athabasca County, which adds up to a total of 174.
There have been four COVID-related deaths in the counties of Barrhead and Westlock, while Athabasca has seen three.
A number of those active cases are the result of outbreaks within local schools. On Sept. 22, assistant Supt. of Education Services Mark Thiesen provided an update to Pembina Hills School Division trustees regarding the COVID-19 situation.
Thiesen said they have an administrative assistant calling schools within Pembina Hills on a daily basis to inquire about new cases among staff and students. As of Sept. 22, a total of 40 staff and students had tested positive for COVID-19.
And while contact tracing is no longer occurring, Thiesen said they also track daily absences, and when the absenteeism rate at a school reaches or exceeds 10 per cent, principals provide that information to Alberta Health Services (AHS).
AHS will then investigate the situation further and will eventually respond in one of two different ways. The first way was recently demonstrated at Fort Assiniboine School, which experienced absenteeism in excess of 10 per cent; AHS eventually declared an outbreak of an unidentified respiratory illness at Fort Assiniboine, as they were unable to conclusively determine all the students had COVID-19.
Thiesen said AHS then sends out a letter to the principal outlining what should be done if a child gets sick, copies of which are then distributed out to parents. In general, the school is not directed to do anything that they were not already doing unless AHS determines that common practices (masking, proper hygiene) are not being followed.
Incidentally, Thiesen said that Fort Assiniboine’s outbreak was supposed to end as of Monday, Sept. 27, so they should be back to full strength.
Aspen View Public Schools also had an outbreak of an unidentified respiratory illness declared at Smith School on Sept. 9, after more than 10 per cent of students were absent.
But what if AHS determines that there is an outbreak of COVID-19? The same steps are more or less followed, but the school divisions are further empowered to transition an entire class to at-home learning, or request Ministerial approval to shut down an entire school.
The Sunnybend Colony School is currently shut down (and will remain so for over a week as of this writing) due to 11 of 28 students being absent from an unspecified illness and several staff testing positive for COVID. Incidentally, those 11 students represent six of the 11 families that enrol students in the colony school, Thiesen said.
“As you can imagine, it was concerning to us,” he added.
Further outbreaks have been declared at Barrhead Elementary School (BES) and Pembina North Community School (PNCS). In the case of both schools, one particular class has had a large number of absences relating to COVID-19, which prompted the principals to inform AHS.
Outside of local schools, Alberta Health also currently lists outbreaks occurring at the Dr. W.R. Keir Continuing Care Centre in Barrhead, Shepherd’s Care in Barrhead and the Wildrose Villa in Boyle.
Acute care and continuing care facilities (including group homes) are reported as having outbreaks when there are two or more cases, which indicates that a transmission within the facility has occurred.