GUELPH – Students will likely be able to attend in-person classes whether or not they get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.
That’s the message Dr. Nicola Mercer relayed to Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) trustees at the board meeting on Dec. 15.
“We actually do allow children without vaccination to attend school,” said Mercer, Medical Officer of Health with Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH).
She added a parent or guardian must sign a form acknowledging the student is not vaccinated.
“So it is my anticipation that the COVID-vaccination, as we move forward into our future state, will not be a mandatory vaccine for school attendance,” she said.
Mercer explained early vaccines haven’t been approved for children under 12 years of age, so students won’t even have the option to get a vaccine for about six months.
The push was to get vaccines for those who have the highest risk of experiencing a bad outcome, Mercer said, specifically individuals or seniors who are medically compromised.
“I think that you’re going to see that in-person learning will continue to be the preferred option for our children as this (vaccination) program proceeds,” ,” she said.
“And eventually you will find that the adults in children’s lives will be immunized and that will prevent the children from actually having this virus.”
As of Dec. 15, Mercer said the WDGPH region had only experienced six outbreaks in schools.
“We’ve had lots and lots of classrooms that had to go home because of single cases but the transmission that we’ve seen in schools has really been remarkably low,” Mercer said.
“Certainly, what we do know as a community is where people are getting COVID is predominantly in the home at private social gatherings and activities that are not occurring in the school, so I think that it’s sort of important to ground us in that.”
She commended “the school board and all the efforts that you have made. I think it’s really made a difference.”
Mercer also told trustees that while the Pfizer vaccine is available now in Canada and the Moderna vaccine is anticipated shortly, there are three or four other vaccines that will be available in “quite short succession” for Canadians.
She said all of the vaccines are going to be a little different and possibly have different target groups.
However, she added, as the vaccines rollout, public health safety measures will need to continue.
“So unfortunately, mask wearing, physical distancing and hand hygiene is going to continue for some time to come,” Mercer said.
“It’s just going to get safer and safer as we proceed through the year and as more people become immunized.”
Mercer also said WDGPH is ready to host and assist with all vaccinations coming out this year.
“We are very prepared and have been preparing since last summer for this immunization event,” Mercer said. “It’s going to be an all-of-community event.”
She added, “We’re going to have to work together with our family health team partners, our Ontario health team partners, hospital partners – but this is really exciting.
“We can actually see what we need to do to get our way out of this and I think none of us want to be in this pandemic for a day longer than we need to be.”
Trustee Barbara Lustgarten Evoy asked how the school board should “battle” the mindset that the arrival of a vaccine means the the community no longer has to worry about COVID-19.
“We call it COVID-fatigue; we’ve really seen behaviours be really different this time around than it was from the first wave,” Mercer said.
“What I try and tell people is you would be really heartbroken if one of your loved ones didn’t make it to … having a vaccine and I think that the end is in sight. Don’t give up now.
“It really is a fairly short period of time (months) before we’re going to be able to see the impacts of the vaccination program.”
She added that once vulnerable people, health care workers and essential workers are immunized, outbreaks and hospitalizations will begin to decline and society will begin to open back up.
“I anticipate that we should begin to see some of the impacts of the immunization program … as we head into the spring,” Mercer said.
“So I’m really optimistic that … April, May as more vaccine rolls out, you’ll see much more big immunization programs and people getting immunized and I think you’re going to start hearing people talking about ‘Have you had your shot? I have.’
“People are going to be very excited about this one.”
Evoy also asked about vaccine immunity length.
Mercer explained that coronavirus is different from influenza and there could be longer-lasting immunity with one vaccination.
“I don’t necessarily mean one shot and you’re good for life, because we don’t have that answer and clearly we haven’t had that long a timeframe with this coronavirus,” she said.
“But it is more likely that the vaccine will provide a longer period of immunity, and by longer I mean beyond months, possibly years, and that is certainly what we would like to see with any vaccine,” she said.
Trustee Mike Foley asked what Mercer would need to see in the community to allow students to return to synchronous learning after the Christmas break.
“It’s not just my decision really; it’s a decision as a community and as a school board and as a minister,” Mercer replied.
“So do I have the power to order that? Possibly, but I don’t think … that would be the appropriate way. I think it’s a conversation about what is best for our area.”
However, Mercer did say she’s not as concerned about university and college students coming home for the holidays as she is about families and friends visiting indoors.
“For the most part, people have actually forgone the large parties this year, so we are not seeing large workplace parties or the large parties, but we continue to see smaller gatherings,” she said.
“So gatherings of two to four extra people into their household and this is what is causing the spread.”
Mercer anticipates this will continue over the next few weeks.
“I’m starting to already message on social media that if you do go out and socialize today, you might actually be spending Christmas in the basement eating by yourself because you could be in isolation for COVID,” Mercer said.
“So please don’t use this as a time to socialize; but human behaviour being what it is, I think we can all anticipate that there will be a percentage of people … who are not going to follow the rules.”