Approach to COVID in schools more relaxed this year |

Approach to COVID in schools more relaxed this year

County Public Health Director says virus is now being handled more like influenza

First grader Isla Gale Hopkins visits with a teacher before heading to class at Soda Creek Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

For Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith, the start of the school year has been vastly different than it was last year.

Some schools had students in masks while others didn’t. Public health and school nurses were often hurrying to contact trace COVID-19 cases and hand down proper quarantine procedures. Not anymore.

“I don’t feel like we’re scrambling as much,” Smith said at a meeting with leaders of each school district in Routt County on Monday, Aug. 29. “(Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment), with their school guidance, is really starting to focus on COVID as just another communicable disease that we might see in the school-age population.”

The county’s health department no longer handles contact tracing, with this work being done at the state level and typically only in high-risk situations such as a congregate care setting. Quarantine has dropped off too, with an exposure to the virus no longer keeping students home, Smith said.

This now places COVID-19 at a similar level of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) or influenza, Smith said.

“What this means is outbreaks aren’t going to be handled in the same way,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a communication between schools and public health to let us know if you have an increase in cases.”

There are still various opportunities for schools to enroll in testing programs, but Smith said another indicator for an increase in cases could be the number of students who are absent on a given day. An increase in students missing school could be a sign COVID-19 is spreading, though there is no longer an official number of cases that would constitute an outbreak.

COVID-19 has been fluctuating locally, with the two-week case totals staying above 100 for most of June and July. That has dropped off though, with about 40 cases reported in the two weeks before of the start of school, according to the health department.

“Guidelines, as they are written now, are pretty generic,” Smith said. “Probably, the next step is that this would go away and just be blended into (general) infectious disease guidance.”

The only time a student needs to isolate would be if they test positive for COVID-19 or if the student is showing symptoms and hasn’t received the results of a test yet.

If a student tests positive for COVID-19, they will need to isolate for five days, but can return to school after that if they wear a mask and are not experiencing any symptoms.

If a student has been in close contact with a COVID-19 case but isn’t showing symptoms and hasn’t tested positive, they won’t have to quarantine but should wear a mask in public for 10 days and take a COVID-19 test on the fifth day.

Smith added that the schools should report cases they learn about to the county health department, and she encouraged parents who give their children an at-home test to report those results using CDPHE’s portal.

The best way to try to prevent the spread of the virus is still to get vaccinated and boosted, Smith said.

Vaccination rates among the county’s youngest — from 6 months up to 5 years — are low, with just 11% in that group having any dose of the vaccine and just 7% fully vaccinated.

“Last year, we did bring some of the vaccine buses to some school campuses,” Smith said. “We are more than happy to do that again.”  

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