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Mass coronavirus infections among B.C. children projected if no further measures taken: scientists

Close to 7,800 infections per day among children aged 0-19 could be expected by mid-October under the status quo, according to new modelling
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Factors leading to calls for action in schools include a more transmissible Delta variant, much higher case counts than last year and the fact that children are largely an unvaccinated population

Mass infections of COVID-19 among B.C. children could occur upon return to classrooms should no measures be taken to curb the present rise in community transmission and as many adults continue to refuse a vaccine, according to new modelling by an independent group of B.C. scientists.

Generally, COVID-19 has not affected children as severely as it has adults. But the United States is now seeing a surge of pediatric hospitalizations this summer, with some American children’s hospitals reporting they are reaching capacity. This is the result of the ‘Delta’ coronavirus variant, which data shows is more transmissible and proving to be more dangerous for children than the original variation of the virus.

“B.C. is currently on the same path, with serious consequences for health care,” states the BC COVID-19 Modelling Group, formed of math and infectious disease experts largely from Simon Fraser University, University of Victoria and University of B.C.

“Delta’s increased transmissibility and increased severity. The situation in the U.S. with kids in schools is really different than it was last year,” said modeller and SFU mathematician Dr. Caroline Colijn.

The group states the province’s cases have been doubling every nine days this month and hospitalizations and ICU admittances will continue to grow, particularly among unvaccinated people.

By mid-October, reported cases could reach close to 12,000 per day and by November upwards of 5,000 people would need to be hospitalized, should nothing change. 

And the vast majority of those cases (not hospitalizations) are expected to be among children. Close to 7,800 infections per day among children aged 0-19 would be expected. This is because the virus is sweeping through unvaccinated people and the emergency vaccines have not yet been approved for children under 12. In B.C., children aged 0-9 make up 9% of the population (about 470,000) but 36% of the unvaccinated. 

The report notes, however, that “individual and policy actions would likely be taken to avert the peak.”

Colijn likens the model to a headlight shining on the road ahead of you. A moose (mass infections) is ahead and we can see it, so she expects government to pump the brakes with certain measures put in place, granted the worst-case scenario appears catastrophic for the health system and society.

“You don’t hit the moose. That’s the great thing about models. We get to act once we’ve seen what’s in the headlight,” she said.

Still, as it stands, with 531 cases per day, on average, measures such as the ones in spring (indoor masking and limited social gatherings) put in place now will only tame the present spike in September. The group predicts cases could reach 2,000 per day in mid-September, while as many as 1,000 could be in hospital – about double the patients seen earlier this year. And this assumes 90% of the total population is vaccinated within the month.

Last year, school started in B.C. with about 100 reported cases per day. And while Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry consistently reported that kids were not significantly transmitting the virus in schools, Colijn said she expects a different approach to be taken given the data on Delta coming from the U.S. Plus, there is going to be much greater community transmission seeping into classrooms this time around given the case load, she added.

This recent round of modelling has been ongoing since July, and the more recent rise in case counts has proven it to be accurate so far, as the government maintains relatively minor public mitigation measures after lifting mask requirements and travel restrictions and expanding social gatherings before summer.

The group notes vaccinations work well. Data it has collected from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control shows communities in which 70% of eligible people are vaccinated have five times higher rates of COVID-19 cases than those with 90% vaccination.

Hospitalizations as a percentage of total confirmed cases are not going down despite cases occurring more frequently in younger, unvaccinated adults, the group found.

However, one in six adults in B.C. may be subject to misinformation on the internet about vaccines and/or citing their personal freedoms as a reason not to get vaccinated, so it remains a big unknown if the province can get to 90%.

The B.C. Teachers Federation is calling for more robust vaccination, including clinics in high schools.

“Things are most definitely not normal right now, so we can’t carry on as if they were,” said federation president Teri Mooring Thursday via Twitter.

The federation is also calling for mandatory masking, including N95 and/or medical-grade masks available for all students and staff upon request. It is also asking for better cleaning protocols and ventilation.

Colijn said ventilation is key, much more than wiping down tables, not that the latter isn’t also important.

The U.S. CDC recommends keeping all windows open, if safe to do so, plus having fans in the room to push fresh air through.

But many classes in B.C. are held in poorly ventilated portables or with systems with aging HVAC systems. 

Last school year in September, the ministry didn’t mandate masks and had districts implement optional at-home learning. As well, it separated children in cohorts of 60 (elementary) or 120 (high school) with staggered in-class times.

Since the pandemic began, 16,619 children ages 10-19 and 8,809 under age 10 have contracted COVID-19. Two have died and 168 have been hospitalized (23 in ICU). Scientists and health professionals still don’t understand the long-term consequences of the disease in children.

MLA Jennifer Whiteside is the provincial government’s Minister of Education overseeing this school year.

In a statement emailed to Glacier Media, the ministry claims it is still finalizing plans that could be announced in the coming week.

On June 17, 2021, the government announced $43.6 million to support First Nations and Métis students, mental health services, learning impacts on students as well as rapid response teams. The ministry is also investing $77.5 million, through provincial routine capital funding, for HVAC system upgrades or replacements in B.C. schools

“The steering committee continues to meet to discuss the safety guidelines, in consultation with BCCDC, to ensure we are prepared for September’s return to school,” the ministry stated, with no mention of social distancing or mask policies.

“As we’ve outlined in the modelling, some measures to reduce transmission temporarily as well as aggressive expansion of vaccination is at least enough to limit the damage and impact on our healthcare system and on our citizens,” said Eric Cytrynbaum, associate professor of mathematics at UBC, who presented the group’s findings on YouTube Wednesday.

gwood@glaciermedia.ca