Health officials react to updated StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) – In North Carolina’s “StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit,” updated on Thursday, there are strategies that have been the most effective in keeping kids in classrooms at this stage of the pandemic at K-12 schools, according to state health director Elizabeth Tilson.

“Vaccination, boosting, wearing masks when we have high levels of transmission, testing,” Tilson said. “Individual contact tracing and excluding of asymptomatic contacts that have been notified, that no longer is likely an effective tool to decrease transmission in a school setting.”

The updated toolkit no longer recommends individual contact tracing in K-12 schools. The updates will take effect Feb. 21st, 2022.

“So the good news is then, those people who have been exposed, but are asymptomatic, can stay in school,” Tilson said. “But we are recommending that there is a notification so people are aware that they may have been exposed and then also recommendation they wear a mask and they get tested five days after that they may have been exposed.”

Tilson added what officials learned about the Omicron variant, is that it’s highly transmissible with a very short incubation period.

“People are most contagious right when they get infected,” Tilson said. “So we have a pretty small window of being able to do a public health impact. Also, …. many infections are asymptomatic, or mild, and so people may not seek testing, so we may not know of those cases. And then being able to identify all of the close contacts, it’s also very hard when you have this transmission.”

For health director Wes Gray, the announcement comes at a time when vaccination has been the best public health tool so far for Martin, Tyrrell, and Washington counties.

In Martin County, 52% have had at least one dose, and 48% are fully vaccinated, according to the NCDHHS dashboard.

“That’s our most effective tool,” Gray said. “Then hopefully, you know, our schools that are universal mask schools, see a whole lot less in exposures and have to exclude a lot less students, so they’re in the classroom more.”

In Beaufort County, health director James Madson said they’re continuing to see a downward trajectory in case rates. Madson said they went from a high of 200 per day, to about “40, or so, per day.”

“These are adjustments that, with ways that we can better control it, would be through vaccination, education, monitoring when peaks are occurring in your area,” Madson said. “So, that you can educate the public and respond to it that way, versus trying to track down all the contacts, trying to keep them out of circulation.”

Tilson said the state wants public health officials to shift to settings where contact tracing actually may help decrease transmission and severity, such as in nursing homes or congregate care settings.

“Also our school nurses that were doing a lot of this work [contact tracing],” Tilson said. “We also want them to be able to shift and thinking about taking care of those children with special health care needs.”

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