RALEIGH – The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced Feb. 10 updates to the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit focusing on strategies that are most effective at this stage of the pandemic, such as vaccines, boosters, testing and masking, and no longer recommend individual contact tracking in K-12 schools.
Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott said the new changes are the most significant the school system has seen from state health officials.
In addition, NCDHHS recommends that students and staff are no longer required to stay home from school after a COVID-19 exposure unless they have symptoms or test positive. Similar updates will be made to the ChildCareStrongNC Public Health Toolkit. Updates to both toolkits will take effect on February 21st.
“We are committed to ensuring that North Carolines have the necessary guidance and information to balance their risk during each stage of the pandemic and learn to live with COVID-19,” said NCDHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley. “Keeping children in the classroom remains a top priority. As we have done throughout the pandemic, we are evaluating which tools are most effective in protecting students and staff. This is the right approach to this point of the pandemic and includes flexibility for locals. schools and health departments to use data to make informed decisions and respond to local conditions. “
Based on the experience during the Omicron rise and through the pandemic, NCDHHS continues to focus on public health tools that are most effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19. These tools, which are described in the Toolkit Guide, include promoting being vaccinated and boosted, wearing a mask while the transmission rate is high, being tested, and staying home if you are sick.
“Our COVID-19 response is built on teamwork and trust between local officials, school care staff, child care staff and parents as we follow science and use the best available public health tools to protect our children,” said State Health Director and NCDHHS Chief Medical Officer Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, MD “As circumstances change, we adapt our tools, prioritize what works, and stay focused on our common goals – to keep our children healthy and learning.”
Contact tracing has been an important tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19, and it remains important in certain high-risk gatherings. However, several factors at this stage of the pandemic have diminished the overall effectiveness of contact tracking in primary school and the wider community. These factors include:
- Emergence of variants with shorter incubation periods and fast transmission.
- People with infections are most contagious before the onset of symptoms and during the first few days of illness.
- Larger number of asymptomatic and less severe cases are due in part to more immunity to vaccination and previous infection.
- Many infections are never identified by public health authorities because people with asymptomatic or mild cases may not be tested and due to the increasing use of “over-the-counter” tests at home.
- Widespread virus and low case instances and contact identification limit the effectiveness of contact tracking to reduce transmission.
Although exclusion from school is no longer recommended after an exposure, it is recommended to report potential exposure.
The updated toolkit provides options for schools to notify potentially vulnerable students or staff when a COVID-19 case is identified in the school environment. Local schools and health departments may choose to continue contact tracing; NCDHHS has proposed tools in the toolbox that schools can consider based on local conditions.
NCDHHS regularly updates the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit to ensure that local primary schools have the best available tools to reduce the risk of COVID-19 and keep students in the classroom, while giving schools and local health departments the flexibility to use local data to evaluate and respond to local conditions.
Watauga County Schools
Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott said he was not surprised by the changes, saying it is inevitable that “we are moving toward prevention and treatment strategies that reflect the possible endemic nature of the disease.”
Elliott said the changes are a response from data provided by school systems and the Duke ABC Science Collaborative on the effectiveness of quarantines with this specific variant of the virus.
“Strategies that could have been effective a year ago are not as effective right now, and we need to be prepared to adapt and change according to what doctors and health experts tell us,” Elliott said. “I have shared publicly for several months that our school data shows that most quarantined students never develop the virus after a close contact exposure at school.”
Of the more than 1,080 student positives this school year, only about 8 percent have been from close contacts at the school. Elliott said of the approximately 220 students who have stayed in school through our Test to Stay program instead of being sent home in quarantine, only about 2 percent have tested positive.
“These new rules mean our nurses and school staff will shift their focus away from the intense work of contact tracing to focusing instead on students and staff who are symptomatic,” Elliott said. “We will continue to offer tests to anyone who is symptomatic. We will also continue to notify parents and students when we know of a positive case in a classroom, and we will offer tests to any of the families who wish. tests. “
Elliott said the changes also reduce the weight of masks as criteria for quarantines, which is information that the Watauga County Board of Education will consider at their monthly meetings when deciding on mask requirements.
“The board has for a few months now stated that they would be willing to reconsider the mask mandate when it would not result in more students being quarantined or more students getting sick,” Elliott said. “They will also take into account the current level of the virus in the community and balance the different needs and concerns of all members of our school community.”
Elliott pointed out, however, that the new toolkit updates do not change the mask or isolation rules for students who are symptomatic or test positive. The students must still stay at home for at least five days and must still wear the mask for up to 10 days, regardless of whether there is a mask mandate in place or not.
Elliott said the school system will continue to work with community partners such as Boone Drug, Samaritan’s Purse and the health department to make vaccines and boosters available to students and school staff. He said the school system has a wide range of high quality masks available to anyone who needs them.
“My goal has always been to protect our students and staff, keep as many students as possible in the school, and keep the school’s activities as normal as possible for our students,” Elliott said. “I think we’ve done a much better job with it than most places, and this is just one step more towards the normal.”