The virus introduced itself to Leslee Gehrmann as a whisper.
Rumours were circulating among parents that COVID-19 had entered Nelson’s Rosemont Elementary when Gehrmann opted to pull her kids from class.
She thought she was being proactive, but only days later her daughter started showing symptoms. Four of the family’s five members soon tested positive for the virus.
Gehrmann’s six-year-old daughter and her husband only experienced mild symptoms, while their 14-year-old son somehow tested negative.
But her eight-year-old daughter developed a sinus infection. Gehrmann, meanwhile, suffered from fevers, a high heart rate, excessive sweating, muscle cramps in her hands and feet, and intense headaches.
“I felt like I fell down the stairs or got hit by a car,” she said.
The Gehrmanns are now among Rosemont families and residents who have been forced to share information about an outbreak few understand.
A COVID-19 exposure occurred at the school of 115 students on April 6 to 9, then again on the 12th and 13th. On April 13, School District 8 notified families that one class had been told to isolate until April 26.
No other information was provided. The district and Interior Health cite privacy rules when asked how the exposure began, or how many students and staff have been infected.
Cases keep rising meanwhile in the Nelson local health area, which had 23 new reported cases between April 4 to 17, according to the BC Centre for Disease Control.
Rosemont Elementary remains open, as do Kaslo’s J.V. Humphries and Brent Kennedy Elementary at the Junction after exposures that followed at those schools.
That has left parents to suss out for themselves who has COVID-19, how serious the exposure is and whether their children should return to class.
Laurie Wilkie has relied on an informal Facebook group set up by parents to share information after her seven-year-old son Edward tested positive.
Edward was part of the Rosemont Elementary class sent into isolation. He appeared fine until Wilkie decided to have him tested on April 19 before sending Edward and his sister to a care provider so she could return to work.
Edward was initially asymptomatic until last week when he felt ill. Wilkie, a nurse at Kootenay Lake Hospital, has had to rely on what neighbours, friends and other parents have told her about the virus’s impact.
“A lot of us parents feel that because SD8 can’t tell us anything, which we get to an extent, most of us don’t feel we can make informed choices about what’s best for our kids and our families,” said Wilkie.
On the private Rosemont Elementary Facebook page for families, parents have exchanged what information they have. Wilkie said there’s been no stigma, only support for people who had said the virus is in their homes.
“There’s absolutely no judgement, there’s no pointing fingers.”
Not at each other, that is.
‘I almost feel like a guinea pig’
Interior Health typically alerts residents of a positive test within 24 hours. That’s supposed to be followed by another call from contact tracers who ask for a list of recent exposures and then make further calls if necessary.
Dr. Albert de Villiers, Interior Health’s chief medical health officer, said on an April 22 conference call with reporters that contact tracers are usually reaching out to people within 24 hours of a positive test.
“We are keeping up,” he said. “We are basically keeping that inbox clean on a daily basis but it might take a day or two after we get the result.”
If there is a delay, he said, it’s because people are expecting calls within days of their symptoms onsetting and not of their positive test result.
For this story, the Nelson Star spoke to several families both on and off the record. Every person, some unprompted, cited concerns about Interior Health’s contact tracing program, which parents say isn’t acting fast enough.
Gerhmann said she wasn’t contacted by tracers until six days after her positive test.
“Speaking to Interior Health, everybody’s been super kind but nobody has any answers,” she said. “I almost feel like a guinea pig.”
Lexi Campese has two children at Rosemont Elementary, one of whom was exposed to the virus by a family who she says has since had five positive tests. She said contact tracers didn’t reach out to her family about the exposure until 12 days later.
That kind of delay, she said, results in a community having to rely on each other for direction during the pandemic instead of on health authorities.
“I feel like that lack of information maybe is to not create panic, but I feel like it’s doing the complete opposite,” she said.
Residents who don’t have children at the school are also left out of the loop.
Donna Lockett lives a short distance from Rosemont Elementary, but her son Abraham goes to another school. That meant she wasn’t notified about the initial exposure, nor was she included in the Facebook group set up for the school’s parents, and only learned about the cases from Wilkie.
That’s frustrating for Lockett, whose father died of COVID-19 last year. Both her and Abraham have since tested negative, but they are isolating as the virus works its way through the neighbourhood.
That decision, she said, comes with a cost. Lockett is a single parent, and voluntarily isolating means she can’t work.
“It’s not ideal to have to weigh the financial responsibility with the medical responsibility of the community,” she said. “That feels quite uncomfortable, but that’s what I weigh all the time.”
‘They don’t feel safe’
The class that first went into isolation at Rosemont Elementary was due to return Monday. But just how empty Rosemont has been since April 13, and what it has meant for staff, is a matter of speculation between families.
Rosemont principal Lindsay Mackay declined to comment when contacted by the Nelson Star and instead referred questions to the school district.
When asked how many Rosemont classes had been impacted by the closure, superintendent Christine Perkins said teachers had returned to work Friday and students had been invited back yesterday.
Those responses are in line with provincial orders that school districts defer to health authorities when a COVID-19 case is announced at a school.
Carla Wilson, president of the Nelson and District Teachers’ Association, said any school with a positive case should close until the full exposure is revealed.
She also doesn’t understand why teachers, who are considered essential service by the province, have had to wait for vaccines.
“I wish I could say my teachers felt safe,” said Wilson. “But because they know it’s in their schools and that it’s in their community right now they don’t feel safe.”
Campese also thinks Rosemont should have closed after the first exposure.
She runs a daycare, which has been closed with her own family isolating, and understands how important safe spaces outside the home are to children and parents.
“But if I send them back, am I going to be doing this in two weeks again?”
It’s a question that no one can, or is willing to, answer.
Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.