Public health official: Schools not exposed to virus

Leader news staff
news@ptleader.com
Posted 3/4/20

No Jefferson County schools have been exposed to the coronavirus as of March 3, according to Public Health Officer Tom Locke, despite a press release from the Chimacum School District stating otherwise.

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Public health official: Schools not exposed to virus

Posted

Editor's note: This story will be updated as Leader reporters get new information regarding the coronavirus. 

No Jefferson County schools have been exposed to the coronavirus as of March 3, according to Public Health Officer Tom Locke, despite a press release from the Chimacum School District stating otherwise.

In the press release sent to parents on March 2, followed by another on March 3, school officials said two students at Chimacum Junior/Senior High Schools had been in close proximity to someone with the coronavirus, COVID-19.

But Locke, who is a doctor and the county’s health officer, said this press release was premature and “inaccurate.”

“The school disclosed confidential information and it has led to more rumors,” Locke said.

He clarified that a parent had taken two students out of school on Monday because she was concerned her children might have been in proximity to someone with the virus.

The school later said “it was determined that the students had no infection and no symptoms of the virus.”

“A parent decided to keep two children home in an abundance of caution,” Locke said.

The students, he added, “are perfectly well.”

No schools have been exposed to the virus in Jefferson County as of March 3, he said. There have not been any confirmed cases in Jefferson County either, although he added that could change in the coming days and weeks.

On Tuesday, 239 Chimacum students were absent from school, according to assistant superintendent Art Clarke. Chimacum School District has a student population of 836.

The district issued a statement explaining their process for releasing information: “Our priority is the health and safety of students, staff and families, and communicating about health and safety issues in a timely manner is of critical importance.

“As is often the case in a developing public health situation, information is rapidly changing. That’s why when we shared the preliminary information we had received, it included a commitment to keep the community apprised of any changes or developments.”

Locke said the Public Health department is conducting several investigations of community members who might have been exposed to known cases in Seattle.

The department aims to maintain patient confidentiality when investigating potential exposures, he said.

“Things are changing very rapidly,” he said. “As we got more information, that could change.”

The first death on U.S. soil connected to the Wuhan, China Coronavirus, COVID-19, was reported Saturday at EvergreenHealth hospital in Kirkland, Washington.

Where and how the man in his 50s contracted the virus is unknown, as he had no recent travel to infected areas nor any known contact with any infected individuals.

He is reported to have had chronic underlying health problems aside from COVID-19. With what is known about the virus, the chronic symptoms might have contributed to his vulnerability.

Health officials suspect “community spread” of the virus has begun in the U.S., which will contribute to a rapid increase in confirmed cases.

“What we’re seeing is the tip of the iceberg,” said Frank Riedo, medical director of infection control at EvergreenHealth hospital. “There is ongoing transmission.”

Since then, there have been nine deaths in Washington state and 27 confirmed cases as of press time on March 3. Six of the confirmed cases, including one death, are residents of Snohomish County, while 21, including eight deaths, were in King County, according to Washington State Public Health. A total of 231 people are under public health supervision in the state.

Jefferson Healthcare has had no positive coronavirus patients as of March 3, according to Amy Yaley, director of communications for the hospital.

“We meet weekly to evaluate the current situation, resources, processes and preparedness,” Yaley wrote in an email response to questions from The Leader.

Yaley said Jefferson HealthCare has recently reviewed protocols for the care of patients who require isolation precautions, and hospital staff is in close communication with Public Health and East Jefferson Fire and Rescue. Jefferson HealthCare will follow current public health and CDC guidelines for the evaluation and care of patients with the potentially infectious disease.

Washington state’s public health system includes 35 “Local Health Jurisdictions.” Jefferson County Public Health is one of those.

“Local Health Jurisdictions have a lead role in public health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic,” Locke said. “The county health officer has broad emergency powers to isolate and quarantine those with communicable diseases and implement ‘mitigation’ actions such as school closures, restrictions on public events and other interventions designed to slow the spread of the outbreak.”

The department’s priorities are to reduce disease transmission, protect vulnerable populations, keep the public informed on new developments, and support the work of healthcare providers and institutions.

“As we find people in the community who have infections, which we will, that’s inevitable, we will be putting out advisories,” Locke said.

He is predicting there will be cases in Jefferson County in the near future.

“This is a very infectious virus and it has such mild symptoms,” he said. “Infections like that just spread, because people who have it don’t know it.”

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency over the weekend.

“This is a time to take common-sense, proactive measures to ensure the health and safety of those who live in Washington state,” Inslee said in a news conference.

Area schools are issuing notices to parents to remind children to practice good hygiene, while more than 10 schools in Western Washington have announced closures in response to the virus.

Chimacum School District will pay custodial staff overtime to deep-clean between school days, said Nicholas Shanmac, communications manager for the district.

Port Townsend School District released a statement to parents Monday that stated school staff are taking extra precautions in sanitizing surfaces in the classrooms and buses, monitoring students for symptoms and providing hand sanitizer.

Because the coronavirus has been deadly to elderly individuals, nursing homes in Jefferson County are taking extra precautions.

John Mock, director of San Juan Villa Memory Care, said they are heightening the basic practices the center typically takes to prevent the spread of diseases, by posting signs asking family members and friends who have been sick not to visit residents and making sure all staff members stay home if they are sick.

Matt Miner, music performance manager for Northwind Arts Center, issued a statement March 3 that the March 10 “Arts to Elders” concert at San Juan Villa was cancelled by mutual agreement of Northwind and the retirement community, due to concerns about the coronavirus, although they hope to reschedule in the near future.

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26 years in PT

While it may be comforting to hear that no Jefferson County schools have been exposed, it would be more ACCURATE to report that there are as yet no KNOWN exposures in our schools, though there is one resident who has tested positive. What else is known about COVID 19 is that community transmission in Western Washington has been ongoing for at least six weeks. What is also known is that social distancing, which includes closure of schools, can be one of the most effective ways of slowing transmission and containing a new pathogen. See NY Times today: Coronavirus School Closings: Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late; History teaches us that keeping children at home early in an outbreak can save lives. By Howard Markel. Dr. Markel studies the history of pandemics. While this virus may currently present itself with mild symptoms for children, it can be much more serious for older adults. The best way to prevent transmission will be to prevent large groups from gathering. The only places in our rural community where 300-400 people gather every day for several hours each day, sharing food, sharing restrooms, and viruses is our schools. And where do they go when they get out of school at the end of the day? They circulate throughout the whole community. So think about the health of the whole community, and ask the right questions! How many people in Jefferson County have so far been tested for this virus? How many test kits do our physicians even have access to right now? Think about the doctors and nurses on the front lines. How will our local critical access hospital manage health care when overwhelmed by an epidemic, without enough testing kits, with shortages in supplies and hospital beds? This is not fear mongering, this is science based critical thinking, and we need more of that in our local newspaper.

Saturday, March 7, 2020