As children and teens across Multnomah County prepared to head back to school full-time amid peak COVID-19 infection rates, county health officials laid out their plans and protocols for health and safety metrics.
County Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey and Dr. Jennifer Vines, the county's health officer, answered questions Tuesday, Aug. 31, about what a surge in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations means for the county as schools reopen for the 2021-22 academic year starting Sept. 1.
"We are at a unique moment in this pandemic," Dr. Vines said. "The risk of pandemic in schools is a reflection of the conditions in the community."
Four days prior, Oregon reported a record number of daily COVID-19 cases — 3,207 — on Friday, Aug. 27.
As county and state health officials drive home the urgency and risk of infection, parents across the Portland metro area have asked whether schools should be reopening.
Dr. Vines said the state-level plans for reopening schools in-person for the 2021-22 school year were developed before the delta variant became a dominant threat.
"We've learned a lot about COVID," she said. "We are also now learning about the delta variant. We've also learned that kids don't do well when they're not in school."
How many outbreaks is too many?
While some school districts have outlined their health and safety plans for parents and families, students will head back to school without state-level health metrics in place to determine when, or if, school sites should close and return to distance learning in the event of a large outbreak or high virus transmission rate.
"We don't have a hard and fast threshold," Dr. Vines said. "We're trying to support schools in balancing all the factors and risks that come from (returning to school.)"
In contrast to the last school year, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has said public health decisions will now rest largely with local governments, like cities and counties. Since relegating those responsibilities to local municipalities, the governor has implemented statewide indoor and outdoor mask mandates, while also requiring K-12 teachers and employees to get vaccinated.
Students must wear masks on school buses and Portland Public Schools said pupils will have to wear them at recess and during outdoor sports, too.
Dr. Vines and Guernsey hammered home a plea for everyone to wear a mask in public and get vaccinated, while urging residents not to gather in large groups for Labor Day weekend.
As of Aug. 22, state data showed every county in Oregon had a "high" level of community transmission.
Quarantines may be limited
School districts in Multnomah County have vowed to try to keep children 3 feet from one another in as many settings as possible, while Portland Public Schools plans to also have school lunches outside for at least the first six weeks of school.
Still, county health leaders said it's unlikely students would have to quarantine at home after being exposed to someone with COVID-19, unless they were in close contact or unmasked.
Jamie Smith is the coordinator for the Multnomah County Education Service District's school health services staff.
Smith said according to standards set by the Oregon Department of Education, if a school can attest that everyone in a classroom was 3 feet apart and masked, a confirmed COVID-19 infection from a student in that class wouldn't trigger an automatic quarantine for the rest of the group.
"We may not have to quarantine that cohort or classroom, because of that guidance," Smith said, noting that doesn't apply to exposures where kids were seated together in a lunchroom. Smith also said MESD has a dedicated team of three to four nurses to help respond and be the primary points of contact with the county's public health department. MESD will work with school districts and the county in events where contact tracing is necessary or a school outbreak occurs.
What happens after a positive test?
According to Smith, as soon as MESD becomes aware of a positive case, the district health team gathers as much information up front as they can. Then MESD's communicable disease team reviews information to determine whether there was exposure to others or a potential outbreak.
"We provide the appropriate timelines for that individual, and then if there was potential exposure to others on site, we provide that notification as well," Smith said.
Regular testing available
PPS has also unveiled plans to provide free weekly COVID-19 screening testing to students and unvaccinated staff, with help from the Oregon Health Authority. The screening testing is for those who are not symptomatic and have not had a known exposure to an infected person.
"We will continue to offer symptomatic testing to students and staff who display symptoms of COVID-19 during the school day and will follow the quarantining process immediately," PPS administrators said in a back-to-school family guide.
Almost all school sites have access to rapid tests now, Smith said, and the county expects more testing sites will also become available.
"One of the most important roles we've played is (setting up) low-barrier testing and we're expanding community-based testing sites," Guernsey said, noting other agencies were also looking to expand the number of available testing sites.
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