OMA Spotlight on Health

Back to School with Algoma Medical Officer of Health Dr. Marlene Spruyt

September 04, 2020 Ontario Medical Association Season 1 Episode 25
OMA Spotlight on Health
Back to School with Algoma Medical Officer of Health Dr. Marlene Spruyt
Show Notes Transcript

This September back to school will look different for all children. Featuring Dr. Marlene Spruyt, Medical Officer of Health/CEO of Algoma Public Health in Sault Ste. Marie, explaining how they are working with school boards to ensure the safest return to classes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

OMA Podcast Episode 25 - Back to School with Algoma Medical Officer of Health Dr. Marlene Spruyt

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Voice-over: In this podcast the Ontario Medical Association looks at current health issues that are on everyone’s mind. Spotlight on Health gives you the straight talk. We’re Ontario’s doctors and your health matters to us.

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Anne Marie Flanagan: I’m Anne Marie Flanagan, I'm the director of Media Relations and Social Media at the Ontario Medical Association. 

Dr. Marlene Spruyt: And I'm Dr. Marlene Spruyt, and Medical Officer of Health for Algoma District based in Sault Ste. Marie. 

Flanagan: And we're here today to talk about back-to-school. 

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Flanagan: How are you working with local school boards and local schools to ensure a safe return for students this fall?

Dr. Spruyt: We've been working with our schools and school board since the beginning of the pandemic. Before we even closed the schools, schools reached out to us, and we gave them advice on their pandemic planning in terms of improved environmental cleaning, and how to keep kids a bit safer, even then. 

Schools closed down, we continued to work with our school boards during their graduation ceremonies to try and make them as safe as they could be. And also, some of their employees were still working in the schools and school boards, and so we've given them advice all through the pandemic. 

Of course, things have intensified in the last few weeks while they prepare for children to return to school. And we've mostly waited to get the documents from the province so that we could speak in a consistent fashion, so that school boards weren't doing different things across the province. 

But we have reassured them that we will be there to answer all their questions and to support them as they go through this very difficult and challenging process.

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Flanagan: How important are your ongoing relationships with local school boards to the success of back-to-school?

Dr. Spruyt: Ongoing relationships are critical whenever we work with partners, and we know schools haven't had to deal with outbreaks and infection prevention and control. That's not in their normal scope of work, but it is for public health. And so, we're happy to support them and advise them through any of those concerns that they have. 

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Flanagan: I think it's really important for people to understand how closely public health is working with school boards and how this work has really been ongoing since the beginning of the pandemic.

Dr. Spruyt: Like, most health units always had school health teams that were focused on working with our schools for physical activity, for healthy eating, for a number of curriculum-related issues that we support at the schools. So, those nurses have relationships with individual principals and schools, and we're going to leverage those relationships, expand them with the additional funding of more public health nurses to support those individual schools.

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Flanagan: And we know that every region in the province is a little bit different, and often specific areas within regions can be different as well. So, what are some of the unique regional circumstances or challenges that you're advising on in your region?

Dr. Spruyt: Certainly, in Northern Ontario, there is a longer transportation to schools. There are many kids that live in rural areas that might spend half an hour to 45 minutes on a school bus getting to school. And we know those parents are going to have additional concerns about exposure during the transportation phase. 

Fortunately, though, many of those rural schools are small, and so the size of classroom is a bit smaller than it is in some of the very highly populated urban areas. And so, the cohorts will be a little bit smaller. They'll be inside their community, so a small local community school is really only exposing its children to the families that are already in that community, and so there's lower likelihood of transmission.

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Flanagan: Everybody has a role to play in keeping children safe when they go back to school. So, what should parents and guardians be doing to help prepare for their child's return to school?

Dr. Spruyt: Families, and the entire community in which a school child lives, is responsible for the health of that child in its entire community. 

Unlike some of the other businesses that were open when we first had the lockdown, we had little pockets of activity. Now, with the schools open, almost every neighbourhood has school children in it that connect with other kids in their neighbourhood, their parents are working in various places—they may be going out to work, they may be working from home, they're going out to grocery shop—so, the schools are a reflection of the entire community. 

It is important that everyone in the community, whether they have schoolchildren or not, practice all the public health measures that we've been advising all along. Minimize your contact with other people, stay six feet apart, wash your hands frequently. All of that advice keeps your community safe and will also keep our schools and school children safe.

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Flanagan: Some people are concerned about the expansion of their social circles or bubbles, because they may have been keeping a fairly tight social circle—as the province had been advising, about 10 people I think—up until this point. And then, of course, when children go back to class, that will dramatically increase that. What would you say to people who are concerned about that?

Dr. Spruyt: The social circle that we're talking about is the family unit or the very close friends that are having close physical contact, touching and hugging each other. When a child goes to school, we are still trying to maximize the distance between school children and avoid a lot of physical contact between those children. 

I recognize that that's very hard for seven- and eight- and nine-year-old kids to do, but we're still trying to reinforce that messaging. So, sending them to school is not quite like expanding your social bubble, but it does bring a little bit more risk into the community. 

It's important when your kids come home from school, that they wash their hands and they clean up before they relate to other members of their family. 

If there are really elderly people in your family, grandparents that are immune suppressed or have other medical conditions, I would recommend minimizing exposure with those children and the elderly, vulnerable population until we really see what happens after the first few weeks of school opening.

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Flanagan: We've talked a little bit about experience in other jurisdictions and how likely, when schools reopen, we can expect some outbreaks, but the idea is to try and really keep them contained. Now, your situation is perhaps a little different in Northern Ontario with lower case counts, but can you talk a little bit about preparedness for dealing with outbreaks? 

Dr. Spruyt: Every parent should be ready for the potential that their child may have to stay home, and have a plan B. 

We don't know when we're going to get an outbreak, when we're going to get an individual case. And, if that case will have exposed a number of other children, we'll be saying to that classroom, keep your child at home for a few days until we've investigated and we are sure that there's no significant spread. 

So, parents have to be ready with plan B to be able to stay home with their children if there is an outbreak.

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Flanagan: What signs and symptoms should parents be looking for in their kids? We know that COVID symptoms tend to be more mild in children, but is there something specific that they should be watching out for?

Dr. Spruyt: We really wish there was one specific symptom that identified COVID, but unfortunately that's not the case. Children, traditionally, have displayed illness in a wide variety of symptoms. So, any kind of respiratory symptoms – an increased cough, a fever, runny nose, vomiting, diarrhea, all of those could be COVID. 

And that's what's going to be really, really difficult this fall, is trying to tease out the difference between those minor illnesses that are just a common cold or influenza versus those that are COVID and might have more risk. 

Certainly, if you have a child that just has a simple earache and is prone to ear infections, you're probably pretty sure that that's not COVID. But most of the other respiratory symptoms, it's going to be difficult to tease out. 

And parents have to be prepared to keep that child home when it wakes up in the morning with even the littlest runny nose. Where before you might have sent them off to school because you know they'd be okay, now you will have to keep them at home.

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Flanagan: What's your advice to parents who are feeling nervous or unsure about whether it's safe to send their child to school?

Dr. Spruyt: This is a really, really hard decision for parents to make, I can appreciate it. My son's in university, so I'm not as challenged, but if I had young children, I'm sure I would be sleepless for a number of nights working through whether you think this is safe. 

Each family needs to look at its individual circumstances. Do they have vulnerable people in the household? Is their child have medical problems that might make them at higher risk? And they will have to make that choice, whether their child will benefit more from social interaction with other children—which is another really important part of childhood development and the main reason that we do feel we have to open schools.

We can't continue to have our children, all our children, at home learning remotely. That doesn't work for some kids, and kids really need to socialize with other children of their own age, learn to problem solve. We're just going to have to support those children a lot more over the next few months, and how to do that as safely as we can.

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Flanagan: We know that it's more important than any time, now, to make sure children are up to date on their regular vaccinations and, also, to make sure that they have the flu shot when it becomes available. What would you say to parents about that?

Dr. Spruyt: I agree with you, Anne Marie. All of the regular immunizations are as important as ever. We certainly don't want to get an influenza outbreak mixed up with a COVID outbreak, and potentially even have kids coming down with pertussis, in the middle of our uncertainty about any minor illness, and we don't we don't know whether that's COVID or whether it's going to be something else. 

So, if individuals get immunized against influenza, it eliminates one batch of respiratory illnesses from the scenario of solving the puzzle of whether this is COVID or not COVID when a child gets ill. 

And so, we encourage people to get their immunization for influenza when it becomes available in October. Most of the health units and the primary care providers are working together in their community to try and improve access and make wider distribution of influenza vaccines available.

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Voice-over: This podcast is brought to you by the Ontario Medical Association. It is produced and edited by Jodi Crawford Productions. This podcast is not intended to provide medical advice for specific situations and is for general educational purposes only. Please consult your doctor if you have symptoms or questions about your health.

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