#Sweden; #Covid19Pandemic; #SchoolClosure
Sweden, May 25 (Canadian-Media): There’s nearly universal agreement that widespread, long-lasting school closures harm children. Not only do children fall behind in learning, but isolation harms their mental health and leaves some vulnerable to abuse and neglect. www.sciencemag.org/news reports said.
In Sweden, they have had a rare opportunity to understand [school] transmission chains better. But you can’t find what you don’t look for.
Anita Cicero, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Image credit: Facebook Page
But during this pandemic, does that harm outweigh the risk—to children, school staff, families, and the community at large—of keeping schools open and giving the coronavirus more chances to spread?
The one country that could have definitively answered that question has apparently failed to collect any data. Bucking a global trend, Sweden has kept day care centers and schools through ninth grade open since COVID-19 emerged, without any major adjustments to class size, lunch policies, or recess rules. That made the country a perfect natural experiment about schools’ role in viral spread that many others could have learned from as they reopen schools or ponder when to do so. Yet Swedish officials have not tracked infections among school children—even when large outbreaks led to the closure of individual schools or staff members died of the disease.
“It’s really frustrating that we haven’t been able to answer some relatively basic questions on transmission and the role of different interventions,” says Carina King, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Karolinska Institute (KI), Sweden’s flagship medical research center. King says she and several colleagues have developed a protocol to study school outbreaks, “but the lack of funding, time, and previous experience of conducting this sort of research in Sweden has hampered our progress.”
“We are trying to mobilize, but realistically with the school year ending in a few weeks, it seems unlikely we will be able to get what we want up and running,” says King, who adds that her queries to public health authorities about other efforts have come up empty. “There is some data collection happening in children, but it’s not focused around schools or, as far as I know, will not answer questions around transmission.”
Because children rarely suffer severe symptoms of COVID-19, pediatricians in several countries have called for schools to reopen. But a key question remains: Because people with mild symptoms can be extremely infectious and frequently spark large clusters of infections, could schools also be a source of COVID-19 outbreaks, possibly driven by children who feel fine but can pass the virus to each other, their teachers, and their families?
Health officials and researchers around the world are scrambling to answer that question. Key to that effort is tracing whether infected children spread the virus to people they’ve been in contact with. “I’m concerned that there may be a rush to judgment that asymptomatic school children aren’t spreading COVID-19 to adults,” says Anita Cicero, an expert in pandemic response policy at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. “In Sweden, they have had a rare opportunity to understand [school] transmission chains better. But you can’t find what you don’t look for. The U.S. and other countries with closed schools would certainly benefit from that research.”
Emma Frans, a clinical epidemiologist at KI who also writes a regular newspaper column on science and health, says Sweden’s overall goal during the pandemic has not been to eliminate transmission completely, but to prevent the health system from becoming overburdened and to protect the elderly. (It has succeeded at the former but not the latter: Sweden has suffered very high mortality among nursing home residents.) Regarding schools, Frans says, “Most people in Sweden are quite happy with [them] being open.” She acknowledges the lack of data is a missed opportunity. With Sweden’s centralized health system and extensive records, “it would have been possible” to track cases fairly easily had there been more testing.
But KI pediatrician and clinical epidemiologist Jonas Ludvigsson, who has published two review articles about COVID-19 in children, thinks tracing infected people’s contacts is of little use at this point in the epidemic. “The virus is so widespread in society that responsible people do not think it is a good idea to trace individuals. We only test symptomatic individuals. I agree with that,” he wrote in response to Science asking whether researchers were tracking school outbreaks.
Ludvigsson added that Swedish privacy laws allow health care personnel and school officials to notify parents and school staff about an infection only “if a person’s life is at risk.” Because severe complications from the new coronavirus are so rare in children, that does not apply to cases of COVID-19, he says. “Consider if your own child … had COVID-19,” he wrote. “None of the kids will want to play with a child who has COVID-19, even if most kids will have no symptoms or only ‘some fever and a cough.’”
In a review paper published 19 May in Acta Paediatrica, Ludvigsson concluded that children are “unlikely to be the main drivers” of COVID-19 spread. He cited case studies from France and Australia but wrote that, “So far there have been no reports of COVID-19 outbreaks in Swedish schools,” citing “personal communication” from Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, on 12 May. “This supports the argument that asymptomatic children attending schools are unlikely to spread the disease,” Ludvigsson wrote.
However, a scan of Swedish newspapers makes clear that school outbreaks have occurred. In the town of Skellefteå, a teacher died and 18 of 76 staff tested positive at a school with about 500 students in preschool through ninth grade. The school closed for 2 weeks because so many staff were sick, but students were not tested for the virus. In Uppsala, staff protested when school officials, citing patient privacy rules, declined to notify families or staff that a teacher had tested positive. No contact tracing was done at the school. At least two staff members at other schools have died, but those schools remained open and no one attempted to trace the spread of the disease there. When asked about these cases, Ludvigsson said he was unaware of them. He did not respond to a query about whether he would amend the review article to include them.
An indirect clue about schools’ role in spread might come from antibody studies. On 19 May, the Swedish Public Health Agency announced preliminary results from antibody surveys of 1100 people from nine regions. They reported that antibody prevalence in children and teenagers was 4.7%, compared with 6.7% in adults age 20 to 64 and 2.7% in 65- to 70-year-olds. The relatively high rate in children suggests there may have been significant spread in schools. The agency did not provide more specific data to distinguish between younger children and those in high schools and universities, which have switched to remote teaching.
The missed opportunity in Sweden is a wake-up call, King says: “We need ready-to-implement protocols for basic epidemiology during these situations.” Studies now underway in other European countries may soon provide more clues. And Cicero and colleagues issued a call last week to “fill in the blanks” in the understanding of U.S. schools’ role in the pandemic. “We need a national mandate to prioritize and quickly fund research to answer these scientific questions,” they wrote. “As schools reopen, [computer] models are not sufficient to determine the actual risk to school-aged children and the teachers and caregivers in their lives.”
#Montreal; #Covid19TracingApp; #MILA; #AIResearchInstitute; #COVI
Montreal (Quebec), May 18 (Canadian-Media): A tracking app COVI designed to protect people from COVID-19 and limit its spread has been launched by Montreal-based artificial intelligence (AI) research institute MILA, media reports said.
The app COVI has the potential to identify people, similar to contact tracing, who’ve been exposed to COVID-19, MILA president Valrie Pisano said.
COVI Canada, an independent not-for-profit with sole mission to support Canadians in their fight against Covid-19 brings together a coalition of of over 500 Canadian researchers and experts, combining research from public health, epidemiology, privacy, machine learning (ML), ethics and psychology.
With the aim to collect information from different people through a network. COVI aims to help calculate one’s probability of catching the virus.
COVI app Image credit: mila.quebec
It is believed by the institute that the app will be authentic to lift social distancing measures.
The institute is in talks with governments at multiple levels, including the federal government, to permit the usage of the app over the next few weeks, said Pisano.
On Friday Mylène Drouin, Montreal’s public health director said that her team has been preparing to study apps that can trace COVID-19.
Pisano said MILA’s proposed app is one of them.
Montreal leads Canada both in terms of the number of COVID-19-related deaths and the number of confirmed cases.
A word from Yoshua Bengio, Mila Scientific Director and COVI lead
#Pandemic; #DigitalVoiceTechnology; #ViceActivatedSystems; #GoogleAssistant, #Amazon, #Alexa, #ApplesSiri;
New York, May 10 (Canadian-Media): In a world suddenly fearful of touch, voice technology is getting a fresh look, phys.org/news reports said.
Voice-activated digital assistants such as Amazon's Alexa and rivals from Google, Apple and others may become more important in light of the virus pandemic.
Voice-activated systems such as Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Apple's Siri have seen strong growth in recent years, and the virus pandemic could accelerate that, analysts say.
Voice assistants are not only answering queries and shopping, but also being used for smart home control and for a range of business and medical applications which could see increased interest as people seek to limit personal contact.
"Voice has already made significant inroads into the smart home space and voice control can mean avoiding commonly touched surfaces around the home from smartphones, to TV remotes, light switches, thermostats, door handles and more," said analyst Jonathan Collins of ABI Research.
The pandemic is likely to provide "additional motivation and incentive for voice control in the home that will help drive awareness and adoption for a range of additional smart home devices and applications," Collins said.
ABI estimates that voice control device shipments for smart home devices hit 141 million last year, and in 2020 will grow globally by close to 30 percent.
For the broader market of voice assistants, Juniper Research estimates 4.2 billion devices in use this year, growing to 8.4 billion by 2024, with much of the interactions on smartphones.
Smart locks, doorbells
Collins said he expected to see growing interest in smart locks and doorbells, along with other smart home systems, to eliminate the need for personal contact and face-to-face interaction as a result of the pandemic.
Avi Greengart, a technology analyst and consultant with Techsponential, said data is not yet available but that "anecdotally, voice assistant usage is way up" as a result of lockdowns.
Greengart said he expects a wider range of business applications for voice technologies in response to health and safety concerns.
"Looking forward, office spaces will need move towards more touch-free controls; voice can be a solution, although motion triggers for lighting is often easier and more friction-free," he said.
"Whilst avoiding touching surfaces may play a small part in this, it is mainly due to consumers spending far more time at home with their devices," Issa said.
Chris Pennell, another Futuresource analyst, said he expects adoption of digital assistants is likely to accelerate, "especially in client facing areas such as healthcare, retail and entertainment."
One example of this already in use is a Mayo Clinic tool using Amazon Alexa which allows people to assess their symptoms and access information on the virus.
Other medical applications are also in the works for voice technologies.
Veton Kepuska, a Florida Tech computer engineering professor who specializes in speech recognition technologies, is seeking to develop voice-activated medical robots that can help limit physical contact and contagion.
"If we had this infrastructure in place, we would have been better off today," said Kepuska, who was spurred by the COVID-19 outbreak to seek funding for the research effort.
Kepuska said this effort could lead to a "humanoid" medical robot which can take over many tasks from doctors or nurses with voice interaction.
"The pandemic has created a situation where we need to think about how to deliver services to people who need our help without putting ourselves in danger," he said.
#Canada; #JustinTrudeau; #CanadaInvestment; #Vancouver; #BC; #AbCelleraBiologicsInc.; #Covid19Research
Ottawa, May 4 (Canadian-Media): An investment of $175 million was announced by Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his daily news conference in Ottawa Sunday, to support Vancouver-based AbCellera Biologics Inc's research on COVID-19 pandemic, media reports said.
Justin Trudeau. Image credit: pm.gc.ca
Promising signs of progress was revealed by AbCellera Biologics Inc.'s identification of antibodies that could be used to create a treatment for COVID-19, said Trudeau.
“Each and every one of us is affected, and our teams stand together, galvanized to fight this outbreak,” said Carl Hansen, Ph.D., CEO of AbCellera. “We are proud to have the support of the Government of Canada to quickly find solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
AbCellera, a privately held Canadian biotech with a drug discovery platform engaged in search of antibodies that can be used to prevent and treat diseases, is also receiving support from the City of Vancouver.
“The City of Vancouver is fully committed to ensuring AbCellera has the infrastructure needed as they accelerate finding a treatment for COVID-19,” said City of Vancouver's Mayor Kennedy Stewart on May 3. “We couldn’t be more proud to be on the front lines of this global effort thanks to the innovation and leadership of AbCellera.”
Federal government is also investing $240 million to boost access to online health services, including virtual access to doctors for primary care, and mental-health support.
#Ontario; #PublicHealth; #DigitalTools; #CanadaSafety
Ottawa, May 1 (Canadian-Media): A joint announcement was made Apr 30 by Patty Hajdu, federal Minister of Health, Joyce Murray, federal Minister of Digital Government, and Bill Blair, federal Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, about intoduction of two new digital tools, Get Updates on COVID-19, and ArriveCan, to support the health and wellness of Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic, media reports said.
Patty Hajdu. Image credit: Facebook page
The government of Canada is already equipped with Canada COVID-19 mobile app, a free self-assessment tool with a symptom tracker, and information on mental health and substance use support through the Wellness Together Canada portal.
Developed by Health Canada, the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), and Service Canada, 'Get Updates on COVID-19' is a web-based email service that provides subscribers with critical information related to the pandemic as well as directing them to important and authoritative content on the Government of Canada’s COVID-19 website, Canada.ca/coronavirus.
After signing up with 'Get Updates on COVID-19', Canadians will be notified by emails of any important information update on COVID-19 with a link to more information on Canada.ca/coronavirus.
During the first week of its testing phase, over 10,000 Canadians subscribed to Get Updates on COVID-19 on Canada.ca/covid19updates.
Canadians not registered with Get Updates on COVID-19 email notification service will still receive emergency notifications on their mobile phone through provincial and territorial Alert Ready text notifications or “Amber Alerts”.
The email service is separate from existing provincial and territorial emergency alerts.
ArriveCan app, developed in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency, has been launched across the country to facilitate travelers returning to Canada to input their 14-day isolation or quarantine information quickly, easily and securely.
The app works by digitizing the information collected in paper form that travelers must complete including flight or border crossing details, any symptoms of COVID-19 exhibited by the travelers, and if they have quarantine accommodations. This app also limits physical contact between travelers and Border Services Officers and Quarantine Officers, helping to protect both the travelers and the officers.
However, this app will not be used to automatically track people’s location through their phone or via GPS, nor is it a surveillance tool.
The Government of Canada prioritizes the protection of Canadians’ information and any tool used to collect personal information undergoes a rigorous privacy assessment.