24 out of school after COVID-19 hits UME

Two Uinta Meadows Elementary students are in isolation after contracting COVID-19, and 22 additional students are being quarantined to help contain the virus. (HERALD PHOTO/Sheila McGuire)

EVANSTON — Uinta County School District No. 1 has seen its first positive cases of COVID-19 in students since the new school year began last week, resulting in a quarantine of multiple students at Uinta Meadows Elementary (UME). Superintendent Ryan Thomas announced the cases during a school board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 1, and further details were contained in a letter from principal Jerrod Dastrup posted on the UME website.

The letter states that two students from the same family tested positive, but it was not a case of spread at school because there were other family members who had previously tested positive as well. Contact tracing for the two students was conducted in conjunction with Uinta County Public Health staff, which resulted in 22 additional students being quarantined due to exposure. No teachers were quarantined; however, some of the quarantined students reportedly have parents who are teachers who will miss work to stay home and supervise their children.

District administration expressed surprise at the quarantine orders, with Thomas stating it was his understanding that if students and/or staff were masked they wouldn’t be subject to quarantine even if they were determined to be close contacts. Initially, Thomas maintained Public Health staff had changed the protocols and said students had not been subject to quarantine during summer school even when positive cases occurred.

However, Thomas later confirmed students at Evanston High School were in fact quarantined during the summer school program and said Public Health had not changed the protocols and the problem was a misunderstanding. Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager Kim Proffit said there had been some confusion in early July about whether quarantine was required for positive cases in schools when students and/or staff were masked; however, the Wyoming Department of Health had clarified that quarantine was required whenever someone was within 6 feet of an infected individual for 15 minutes or more during the contagious period, regardless of whether or not masks were utilized.

Proffit said after receiving that information from state health officials, the policies and procedures utilized by her office staff had been consistent during summer school and during planning for the reopening of schools.

Thomas said, although he had already been encouraging the use of face masks to help avoid the need for quarantine, it is still important for students and staff to continue the use of face coverings in schools. While it may not prevent someone from being quarantined, the use of a face mask could still help prevent transmission of COVID-19 and face masks are still required in public schools whenever social distancing cannot be maintained, per the Public Health orders issued by Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon.

Thomas said, “I have taken responsibility for the confusion with quarantine rules; I do not blame Public Health…Public Health is doing a great job and doing their best. UCSD No. 1 is also doing our best in this confusing situation. Our goal has not changed — get students to school and keep them at school. Public Health is an essential partner in that goal.”

Proffit said, “This is a first pandemic for everyone and mistakes are inevitable,” and she has consistently acknowledged the work done by the district in navigating school reopening and public safety during weekly community updates on the COVID-19 pandemic. During the most recent update, however, Proffit did emphasize that staff in the Uinta County Public Health office are not responsible for the Public Health orders.

Proffit said they are routinely getting calls from people wanting her to rescind the mask requirement in schools or lift some of the restrictions on public gatherings; however, she does not have the authority to make those decisions. Public Health orders are issued by Gordon through consultation with Wyoming State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist and other public health professionals.

In addition, Proffit said her office is regularly getting calls from people asking to be granted a waiver to mask requirements, which her office does not issue. She said people asking for a waiver because of respiratory issues that they claim make it unhealthy to wear a mask are also probably at greater risk of complications due to COVID infection and should perhaps consider a virtual education option rather than attending in-person school.

Proffit said her office is also getting calls concerning recent headlines based on a report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noting that only 6% of COVID-related fatalities were in individuals without comorbidities – multiple disease conditions present at the same time. That report has caused a great deal of confusion, with people interpreting that announcement as an indication that only 6% of the approximately 185,000 fatalities in the United States can actually be attributed it to COVID-19.

However, that CDC report, according to healthcare professionals — including infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci — is consistent with what has been known since the pandemic began, namely that those with underlying health conditions are at greater risk of severe illness due to COVID-19 infection. For example, individuals with high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity, or a combination of those conditions, have consistently been identified as part of high-risk groups for COVID complications and/or death.

The recent CDC report quantified that information and found that a full 94% of known fatalities to this point did in fact have some type of condition in addition to COVID-19 infection; however, deaths are only counted as a COVID-19 fatality if an attending physician lists that as the underlying cause of death.

Proffit confirmed that in Wyoming and especially with the two fatalities in Uinta County, physicians must list COVID-19 as the cause of death for that case to be considered as such, although other conditions may be listed as comorbidities on a death certificate. If a person dies in a car accident but happens to have COVID-19, then that infection would not be listed as a cause of death. Only deaths that doctors have determined are directly attributable to COVID-19 infection are counted.

The Wyoming Information Sharing Platform COVID-19 page lists Uinta County as having 15 active cases as of Thursday, Sept. 3. Proffit said there was a brief window of a few hours last week when the county was down to zero active cases; however, within a matter of hours six new cases were confirmed. Proffit said there was one patient currently hospitalized.

Wyoming has 621 active cases out of a total of 3,911 cases identified, with 41 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

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