‘No one answer’ for local school COVID-19 notifications

'UNIQUE CIRCUMSTANCES': As students and teachers prepare to return to the classroom — in-person or virtually — the Asheville and Buncombe County school districts are working with the Buncombe County Health Department to determine the best way to inform students and staff of a positive COVID-19 case, should one arise. Photo courtesy of NCDHHS

Time is running out for the Asheville and Buncombe County school districts to finalize details for their respective returns to instruction. Both systems plan to resume classes on Monday, Aug. 17 — students attending Asheville City Schools will begin the semester fully remote, while students enrolled in Buncombe County Schools’ “Plan B Beyond” will spend up to two weeks in the classroom for onboarding before moving to virtual classes until at least Monday, Sept. 28.

The schools have also decided how students, parents and staff will be informed of positive COVID-19 cases, should they arise. Each district, in collaboration with the Buncombe County Health Department, will respond based on the “unique circumstances” of each occurrence of the coronavirus, said Stacie Saunders, the county’s new public health director, at an Aug. 13 press conference. 

Under directives from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, all positive COVID-19 cases in students or staff members must be reported to the county health department. Communicable disease staff and school nurses will identify the source of exposure and, with the help of the student, their family and staff, will trace all close contacts, Saunders explained. Those contacts are defined as people who have spent more than 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, she added. 

School administrators, nurses and public health staff will send a general notification to families, teachers and staff if five or more positive cases are reported in a given school, Saunders continued. Identifying information, including if the cases occurred in students and what grade levels were affected, will not be released. 

“The goal of every action in this sequence of events is to protect students and staff and get back to classroom learning and activities as soon as possible,” she said. “We need our students and those who care for them to do their part at school and at home.”

Because COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through droplets spread by speaking and coughing and not from surfaces, Saunders noted, schools may not need to close after positive cases are identified. She said contact tracing, social distancing and proper hygiene, including hand washing and wearing face coverings, would allow facilities to stay open. 

State overcounts more than 200,000 COVID-19 tests

A reporting error caused by a discrepancy in results submitted manually by testing contractor LabCorp to NCDHHS overcounted the state’s COVID-19 tests by more than 200,000, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s secretary of health and human services, at an Aug. 13 press conference. 

Roughly 80% of all patient-level COVID-19 testing data, including positive cases, is submitted electronically through the N.C. Electronic Disease Surveillance System; the other 20% must be entered into the database by hand. To minimize potential human error, only data submitted electronically is used to calculate the state’s test positivity rate, Cohen said. 

NCDHHS staff noticed a discrepancy between the electronic and manual reporting last week, Cohen continued, and found that the number of tests reported manually to NCDHHS inadvertently included at-home COVID-19 testing kits that originated out-of-state but were tested at North Carolina LabCorp facilities. The numbers on the department’s online dashboard have been changed to reflect the corrected data.

The state’s key COVID-19 metrics — COVID-like cases in emergency departments, positive cases, percentage of positive tests and hospitalizations — were not affected by the discrepancy, emphasized Cohen. During a weekly presentation of the state’s COVID-19 data, she noted that hospitalizations had remained relatively level over the past month and all other metrics were beginning to decrease. “Our trends tell the story of sacrifice and hard work, and that’s starting to show declines,” she said. 

In other news

  • NCDHHS and the N.C. Child Care Resource and Referral Network launched a state hotline for families and caregivers in need of childcare for children up to age 12. Families can call 1-888-600-1685 on weekdays from 8 a.m.–5 p.m. to be matched with licensed child care providers.
  • NCDHHS received its first reported case of a North Carolina dog infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. According to the press release, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service have both found “no evidence that pets play a significant role in spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus.” The dog died from its illness.
  • The Henderson County Health Department will host a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site Saturday, Aug. 15, from 9 a.m.–1 p.m. at the Health Department. The free testing is open to all community members while supplies last. 
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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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