Parents of children at Step by Step Child and Family Center have been in a constant state of worry since an outbreak declared at the daycare last Thursday has required children and families to isolate.
The three positive cases represent the first COVID-19 outbreak recorded in a daycare in the community.
When a first infected staff member was identified last Tuesday (February 2), Public Health immediately ordered two additional employees at the centre to self-isolate. Meanwhile, local health authorities reassured parents that a risk assessment ruled out the possibility of children being contacts.
Executive director at the Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre (KMHC) Lisa Westaway explained that contact tracing relies on identifying people within a short window of opportunity; that it is a challenging and quickly evolving task.
“It’s not black and white, it’s very grey,” said Westaway who also serves as a member of the local COVID-19 Task Force. “It’s based on continuous discussions, assessment, reevaluation, getting new information and then, gradually, the picture starts to take place.”
The picture at Step by Step (SBS) began to take shape after two additional people tested positive for the coronavirus – neither the daycare or health authorities have disclosed whether children constitute either of the two latest cases announced.
Immediate measures implemented by the Task Force following the outbreak determination involved children and families from classes one, two, and nine to isolate for a two-week period, as well as the screening of children and staff from the same classes.
The centre counts children as young as 12-months-old.
Following the announcement of the first case, many parents voiced concerns over the handling of the situation, namely, they questioned why the establishment wasn’t instantly shut down.
Community member Brianna Latour is the mother of two young boys, a nine-month-old and a three-year-old. The eldest son is part of the group of children in class two who have been mandated to isolate for the past week.
Latour expressed confusion over the measures enforced by the Task Force.
“I’m just wondering why, as soon as she (staff member) tested positive – even if we weren’t in contact with her – why we didn’t have to isolate right away? As soon as possible,” said Latour.
The mother of two explained that although she trusts that the health team did what they judged was best to ensure the safety of the children, she can’t help but shake the suffocating feeling that has been weighing on her since last Tuesday.
“When I got that first email, my heart dropped,” said Latour. “It was really hard to hear and it’s been a very emotional time for all of us.”
Latour held back tears as she described how she had spent the days leading up to her son’s negative result.
“They said it was going to take around 48 to 72 hours to get the results and on that night that he got tested, I don’t think that I slept at all,” she said. “I stayed up pretty much all night crying because it was going to take so long and I couldn’t do anything.” Brandi Jacobs, the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old who is also in class two at SBS, said that she too has had her reservations about the handling of the outbreak.
“I was of course immediately worried when I heard that there was a positive case there,” she said about the initial announcement. “They made it seem that our kids were safe and that we didn’t have to worry.”
The mother said she felt as though the earliest message sent to notify people about the then single case aimed to “reassure” parents, the subsequent memo, however, gave her the impression she was misled.
“Reading that first release, I thought they had things under control – I totally trusted that they were going to do things well,” said Jacobs.
Westaway stood by their decision-making, explaining that there really was no need for the families and children to isolate prior to the confirmation of two additional cases, as there was simply no medical reasoning to justify this measure.
“When you do contact tracing for somebody who is positive, you look at all of their contacts and you establish a level of risk. Contact is more than 10 minutes within two metres and without protection (PPE),” explained the hospital executive director.
“When you contact trace, you isolate direct contacts,” she added. “You don’t isolate contacts of contacts of contacts.”
Task Force chair and commissioner of Public Safety for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) Lloyd Phillips, explained that the decision was not only backed-up by science and medical research, but also with bearing in mind the hardship stricter measures can trigger.
“It’s hard to be in isolation, so you want to be sure that you’re targeting the people who really require it,” said Phillips. “You don’t want to expand it to a degree where you have people unnecessarily in isolation.”
Drew Deer-Laboucan, another nervous parent, voiced uncertainty regarding the choices made by the health authorities.
“The Task Force and the Public Health said it was okay, so I trusted that,” said Deer-Laboucan, explaining how she sought to rationalize the information given. “And then Thursday night I got the message that now there are three people that are positive.”
The mother, whose son is just two-and-a-half-years-old, said that she and other parents with children frequenting the daycare know that the local health team are trying to make the best decisions, but that they instead wished they would have just closed for the week as a precautionary measure.
Adding insult to injury, the 25-year-old mother found out yesterday that her son would have to undergo a second COVID-19 test.
Deer-Laboucan found out through the Task Force that the second screening will be administered using a nose swab, as opposed to the mouth swab performed during the first test administered on Sunday.
Step By Step executive director Natalie Beauvais said that the news of children needing to be submitted to a second screening was a difficult news to swallow.
“It hurts to know that children had to get tested, and now, they have to get tested again,” said Beauvais.
“It weighs heavy on us because even though we put in all the measures and even though we’re doing the best we can, we still have positive cases,” she said. “The virus is worldwide and it’s in our community.”
The words of Beauvais echoed the heartrending feelings of parents and concerned community members.
Like many, Jacobs confessed the difficulty of coming to terms with the stressful situation.
“Knowing the possibility of my daughter getting sick, the possibility of us getting sick as a family, and what that all entails – it was hard to take in and to process at the time,” said Jacobs.
The events felt exacerbated for Deer-Laboucan who recently lost her father Jeff to the virus.
Nevertheless, the young mother spoke about the near future with courage and optimism.
“We’re just around the corner from getting our vaccines so we should take all the precautions we can and follow the rules now that we know that it’s close,” she said. “It will end eventually and we will all be okay.”
The trust bestowed on the Task Force and local health professionals by parents and community members at-large is not something Westaway and her staff take lightly.
The KMHC executive director said that she is mindful of the criticism expressed by parents and how it hails from the deepest feeling a person could be faced with: fear over the safety of one’s own child.
“I do understand people’s fear regarding the situation – these are their children. Educators also have fear, they have families that they take care of too,” she said.
Steady at three positive cases, and with only two other active cases in the community, the outbreak at Step by Step is a disheartening event the community spiritedly awaits the end of.
The family centre’s executive director said that all of the tests linked to the outbreak yielded a negative result and that she wants to remind parents that SBS is there to provide help during these most challenging times.
“We’re always going to be available for the parents and will be there to reach out to them,” said Beauvais.
She explained that a new project focused on supporting, connecting and sharing experiences in a supportive environment will soon be launched for parents in Kahnawake.
In the meantime, Westaway said she continues to have confidence in the work done by her staff, the local public health team, as well as that of community members.
“Our numbers are a testament to the procedures that we follow,” said Westaway.