The Spencers work from home, only leave for essential errands, and in the spring, shrunk their family of four’s bubble.
They’ve done everything right and followed all the provincially mandated rules — but they still contracted COVID-19.
The Spencers — not their real name, to protect their children’s privacy — decided they would not take additional risks when the school year began Sept. 8, knowing their circle would grow to an unknown extent.
They swapped visits with grandparents, dinner parties and extracurricular activities for their children’s education and well-being in public school.
“Our bubble is our kids’ school, that’s where all the contact happens,” the father said during a phone call on recently, while experiencing extreme fatigue in quarantine with his family.
The Spencers are convinced their oldest child brought home the virus from school.
Earlier this month, the Spencers received a school exposure letter that identified a positive case in their oldest child’s class. That same day, the parents started to experience symptoms. The father had flu-like signs, including a slight fever and headache; his partner lost her ability to smell.
The couple got tested the following day, and within 48 hours, learned they were positive for the virus.
The family listened to public health advice and waited to test their kids, who were and remain asymptomatic, in case they developed symptoms. Then, they found out both a classmate of their oldest child and that student’s sibling had tested positive, prompting the Spencers to get their kids tested.
Only their oldest, who was identified as a close contact of another school exposure announced days later, tested positive for the virus.
During the first two weeks of December, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority issued notices about four COVID-19 cases in the building. No notice was sent out about the oldest Spencer child; including that case, the Free Press has confirmed there have been at least three cases connected to one classroom.
The province has not indicated in-school transmission occurred or declared an outbreak. It recently altered the definition of an outbreak to mean “evidence of significant in-school transmission where there is a risk to the larger school community.” Dr. Brent Roussin originally said a school outbreak would be declared if two cases were found to be linked in a school.
Since the oldest Spencer child was tested after the parents, it’s unknown whether the child gave the virus to the parents, or vice-versa.
But after discussions with public health nurses, and the inability to identify close contacts outside the household aside from their kids’ classmates, the father is convinced his child contracted the virus from a cluster of school kids.
“This is why we need more testing and more surveillance — because we have no idea who got it first,” he said.
“There’s more evidence to suggest (it was in school) than something else. So, that’s why I want this to be taken seriously — because the next family might not do as well with COVID. Someone might get seriously sick. Someone might get hospitalized. Someone could die. It’s scary to think about.”
Earlier this week, when pressed about how he can say with confidence school transmission is limited if so many cases cannot be traced back to a source of infection, the province’s top doctor said Manitoba has been following school populations “quite closely.”
Precautions were put in place to reduce transmission in schools and education stakeholders have been successful in following them, Roussin said.
He added, “We do extensive contact tracing and follow those people who were in contact with that case while in school and we just don’t see a lot of secondary transmission.”
Infectious disease experts and educators have pointed out gaps in such logic, arguing it’s impossible to know what’s really happening in schools without targeted surveillance. Research suggests young students are more likely than older populations to be asymptomatic when infected.
Since children generally have either mild symptoms or none at all, testing resources have been redirected elsewhere. That means researchers still don’t fully understand how children can spread the virus, said Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr.
“In Manitoba, about one in four cases now, we don’t know where that connection was, where the exposure was. So… is it perhaps a lack of knowledge in what’s going on amongst our school-age population? I don’t know,” said Carr, founder of EPI Research Inc.
Alongside an initiative to provide teachers with rapid testing in the new year, Carr said she’d like to see Manitoba follow Ontario’s school surveillance lead and undertake pool testing in schools that are in neighbourhoods with high test positivity rates.
Pool testing is effective in situations where there is limited transmission. It requires combining bits of various patient samples into one vial to limit the number of tests required in a population. If a combined sample comes back positive, each individual sample is re-tested to find out who is positive. If it’s negative, the entire group is negative.
The Spencers also want data and an acknowledgement of the possibility of asymptomatic spread in schools.
“I didn’t think it would actually come to us, because you don’t. It’s always someone else,” the father said. “But it happened and it exposes how there are too many weaknesses in the system set in place to protect our kids.”
As of Thursday, the province had identified 1,901 cases related to K-12 schools in Manitoba. Students make up nearly three-quarters of the total case count.
Twenty-three per cent of all COVID-19 cases in Manitoba are asymptomatic, although testing has been skewed towards symptomatic patients for the majority of the pandemic.