Local health unit to put more nurses into schools amid pandemic

Health Unit is still waiting for guidance document from the province about management of outbreaks at schools

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit will be able to hire 20 additional nurses to do more outreach at schools in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is part of the Ford government’s $50 million to health units to hire a total of 550 public health nurses across the province.

Dr. Charles Gardner, Simcoe Muskoka Medical Officer of Health, said on Tuesday they will be taking a team approach to the schools. He said there will be a certain number of schools allocated to each nurse as a contact for those schools.

“The number is going to be fairly high. It will be challenging for these nurses to spend a lot of time in those schools. But there will be definitely some time spent in those schools. I think most of the communication is going to have to be remote just because of the logistics of being able to service so many schools.” said Gardner.

He said to actually prevent COVID cases, schools are going to have to put in place the cohorting of students into their class, having their lunch in their class, not mixing with other classes, reducing interaction of students as they flow through the hallways with staggard times, with one-way direction and a lot more sanitation, requiring of masks, and to ensure teachers have personal protective equipment.

Gardner said if there is an outbreak in a school, a clustering of more than one case, then the health unit will be on the site. He said each school needs a person that they can contact to help put in place all of those control measures.

The health unit is still awaiting the province’s guidance document about outbreak management for COVID-19 in schools. In the interim, Gardner said they would be taking a detailed history about contacts to see if they can identify if there is a sub-group that had been in close contact with the case or cases, where they have been and who they have been in contact with, and also following up with those contacts and having them put into self-isolation.

Gardner said the later this document comes the more challenging it is for the health unit to be able to assure the public, and put at ease the schools, and advise other healthcare providers and the healthcare system what their roles would be in response to an outbreak. He said they need the plan now.

“The safe return to school is at the forefront of everyone’s minds right now and we know that it has been difficult to make decisions about whether to send your child or children to school or have them do on-line learning,” said Gardner. “Everyone’s situation is different, and the decision to send your children to school in person needs to be one that works for you and your family.”

He said as more spaces open for people to gather (like schools), there will be the potential for more cases of COVID-19.

“Unfortunately in living with this risk we cannot prevent all cases, but we can take action to help prevent outbreaks and to reduce the numbers of cases,” Gardner added. “There is no risk-free option with COVID-19 and it would be unrealistic to think that we can get through the next few months without some risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the school classroom,” said Gardner. “The job of parents is to decide which of the options is best for their child and family at this time and the job of the health unit is to continue to keep transmission in the community low to help stop COVID-19 from entering schools in the first place.”

For more information, including return to learning guidance and resources, visit the health unit’s website at www.simcoemuskokahealth.org. Parents can also call Health Connection to speak with a public health professional weekdays 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 705-721-7520 (1-877-721-7520).