The number of seasonal illness cases — including flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — is on the rise in Alberta, and the province has yet to provide a formal solution to the problem.
At a news conference on Monday, Premier Danielle Smith took reporter questions for the first time since she became premier over a month ago.
Despite the clear medical evidence masking works to help prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like COVID, the flu and colds, Smith has said several times the province will not permit any further masking mandates of children in Alberta’s K-12 education system.
With a rising number of students staying home from school because of illness, the question was posed once again on Monday of whether or not school mask mandates will come back into effect.
The premier made it clear once again, that will not be happening.
“Anyone that feels comfortable to wear a mask should wear a mask,” Smith said.
“That should be a personal choice, and anyone who wants to make that choice, I support them. But we are not going to be mandating masks.”
Smith was also asked what the province recommends when it comes to masking and refused to to answer the question — instead, reiterating she would not be mandate masks.
Data from Edmonton Public Schools shows close to 14 per cent of students were absent last Thursday from COVID and non-COVID-related illnesses – that’s more than 15,000 students.
Edmonton Catholic Schools said last Thursday — the last school day before fall break — the absentee rate due to illness was 15 per cent, or approximately 7,000 students.
At St. Albert Public Schools, the rate was even higher last week with a 16 per cent absentee rate amongst students – about 1,400 students out sick each day, officials said.
Smith said she believes the high number of absences is the result of parents’ increased sensitivity to their children’s illness following the pandemic.
The Edmonton Public School Board told Global News it is encouraging students to attend school with a mask, “given the high rate of illness among staff and students.”
Chair Trisha Estabrooks said the board is still seeking clarity following the court ruling that students not need wear masks.
“You may recall that our board sought answers and evidence for why the mask mandate was being lifted earlier this year and we didn’t receive an answer to our questions. We are not considering a mask mandate, as we continue to believe that decisions related to health need to be made by the Chief Medical Officer of Health and Alberta Health Services,” Estabrooks said.
Alberta premier stands ground with no mask mandates in schools
According to Alberta Health Services, there has been an “early start” to respiratory infection season in Alberta and pediatric hospitals are “extremely busy following a surge in children with respiratory illnesses — including influenza, COVID and RSV — coupled with pressure caused by ongoing staffing challenges.
“The numbers may be higher than in recent years due in part to the rebound of common infections that have been suppressed over the past two years,” AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said.
“We are seeing an early and steep increase in influenza activity in Alberta with 146 hospitalizations due to influenza since late August — 13 of which were admitted to intensive care units (ICU).
“Of these hospitalizations, 46 have been in children under nine years of age.”
AHS expects the peak of infection to hit in a few weeks.
Smith said she will be referring to the judgement of her medical advisory team — with whom she will be meeting later this week — about the measures that need to be taken to reduce and deal with illness in schools.
Smith announced previously that Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the current chief medical officer of health, will be moved out of her job and replaced by a team of advisers reporting to Smith.
The members of the advisory team, including who will take over as CMOH, will also be made this week, she said.
Smith acknowledged that, in the meantime “we have some serious issues we have to deal with.”
The one she is most concerned about being the shortage of children’s Tylenol — the medication that sick children need to help manage flu and fever symptoms.
When asked if she recommends young people get flu vaccinations, Smith said she would defer the questions to the doctors.
However, she added, “I do know that vaccination with influenza — we always talk about whether it’s a good match to the prevailing strain that is circulating — I think that in good years, it’s about 50 per cent effective. There’s still always going to be a percentage of the public that is going to be at-risk. And when people get sick, we need to make sure they’ve got the medications that will help bring fever down and in this case it’s children’s Tylenol.”
Alberta premier blames RSV surge on lockdowns and AHS; addresses medication shortage
The second issue, according to Smith, is the “unacceptably long” wait times in emergency rooms across Alberta.
But by having enough supply of medication like children’s Tylenol, parents won’t need to take their kids to the hospital for medical treatment, she said.
New reforms to Alberta Health Services that will help make emergency rooms more efficient will also be made later this week, she said.
“The most meaningful thing parents want to see from me is that if we can’t get a procured supply through the normal chains that we’re going to take the action to make sure that we get that supply.
“I think that when you’re talking about meaningful solutions, that’s what they want to see. Parents want to see that they’ve got the medication there when their kids get sick, and that if their kids need to go to hospital that they’re not waiting hours and hours.”
In terms of how the province will be handling outbreak and illness in schools going forward, officials said they will be returning to pre-pandemic measures, which are outlined in a new guide.
The 2022-2023 Guide for Outbreak Prevention in Schools “states that school superintendents/designates are responsible to protect the health of students under their care and staff working in their facilities, but that Alberta Health Services continues to work collaboratively with schools and school authorities to protect the health of students, families and staff by preventing, managing and controlling the transmission of illness within school settings,” said Savannah Johannsen, senior policy advisor and acting press secretary for the Ministry of Education in a statement to Global News.
© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.