White County School Board recently conducted a special-called meeting with the sole purpose of hearing from health professionals and gaining input from community health leaders as it pertains to the status of COVID-19 and acceptable safety measures.
The board meeting, which was held in a question-and-answer format, gave board members, who are charged with making decisions about the safety of students in all White County schools, the opportunity to ask questions and have conversations with White County physicians Ty Webb and Brent Staton. The board had hoped to also have both local and regional health department personnel and doctors on hand, but, while they were not in attendance for the Oct. 1 meeting, Director of Schools Kurt Dronebarger and Coordinated School Health Supervisor Marcie Kinnard did have a video conference with them earlier in the week and shared the information they received with the board.
“Officials are telling us to stay the course,” Dronebarger reported, referencing the district’s current policy, which includes a mask mandate, distancing students when possible, and quarantines for students who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive with the COVID-19 virus. “Dr. Grisham did say he wishes he could photocopy what we are doing and implement it in [the] 13 other districts that they work with.”
Kinnaird noted that the Regional Health Department also said there were no acceptable circumstances that would let a student discontinue their quarantine.
“He said that we cannot accept a note from a doctor that says that they have a negative test and that they can come out of quarantine early,” she reported. “He said that [that] should not be happening, and, if it’s a good practice, they will tell them that they still need to quarantine their full 14 days, or 24 days if [they] are a household contact.”
Both Dr. Webb and Dr. Staton, who were next up on the agenda, agreed with Grisham’s statement, stating a patient could be virus-shedding before they begin to show symptoms, which is why the quarantines are an important part of stopping the spread of the virus.
Other questions were raised about quarantines, and, again, both doctors reiterated that a negative test should not disallow a quarantine.
“The reason is [that] the incubation period varies widely,” Webb answered and added that the incubation can last up to 14 days. “If I am tested next day, unfortunately that means nothing. I have to wait 14 days to see if I’ve actually converted and am growing enough virus to be detected at that point. A negative test at 14 days – that means something.”
Dr. Webb went on to say that they have learned that a patient can be highly infectious for two to four days before they begin showing symptoms.
The question about masks being unhealthy was also brought up, and both doctors unanimously stated that this was not true.
“That’s typically people who just don’t want to wear masks,” Dr. Staton said, stating there are surgeons who wear masks for 12 to 16 hours during a surgery and are healthy. “So, no, it’s not harmful. There are people who feel anxiety from wearing masks. It’s a different feeling [breathing warm air]. I can promise that I’ve never known of a surgeon to pass out from hypoxia.”
Webb mentioned other positive effects of students wearing masks at this time.
“Ordinarily when school comes back into session, we see a ton of kids and teachers coming in sick,” he said. “I can tell you in the office, I’ve seen hardly anybody. Ordinarily, we have a huge rash of strep. We’ve seen none. Between wearing masks and the flu vaccine, we may not even have a flu season this year. So, there are other things that are benefitting.”
In answer to questions about students touching objects, particularly in younger grades, the answer was hygiene and making handwashing part of a frequent routine for students and sterilizing the environment part of a routine for teachers and staff.
“I would recommend that you teach them to maintain social distance, teach them to wear a mask, teach them to wash hands until we do, hopefully, come up with a vaccine,” Staton said, responding to questions about how much longer will it wise to keep the existing safety measures in place. “Keeping in mind that even after a vaccine, they are likely going to continue to wear a mask for some time in order to get to a level of immunity. They can only produce so much at one time. The vaccination process could take six to nine months to get to everyone, and then we don’t know if they will need boosters.”
Dronebarger, who admitted the specifics surrounding best practices has been difficult for all school systems who he said were basically left to their own devices, asked for an opinion from the doctors about the decision by another county to no longer be a part of the quarantine process.
“I am seeking medical professionals, not politicians or my own thoughts,” he said. “I’ve been tasked with keeping 4,000 kids safe and the families they go home to. My sincere hope is that we can keep our kids and families safe. I have a lot of respect for the school boards around us and the one directly north of us who has made a decision not to quarantine unless contacted by the health department, and I would like your opinion on that.”
Dr. Webb replied, “The health department is incapable of that. I understand the desire to maybe look elsewhere for that type of call, but I don’t think our health department has the manpower to be capable of this. This is different than contact tracing for measles, etc. I think that not quarantining will be very dangerous.”
Vice chairman Bob Young, who was sitting in for chairperson Jayson McDonald, thanked the guests for sharing their expertise and knowledge with the board.
“We appreciate you helping educate us as a board in helping us understand,” Young said. “You have provided a wealth of information. The board needs to digest this information to make future decisions. We need to be prepared for that.”