Health Board discusses nationwide school closures


Last updated 8/24/2020 at 12:01pm

Members of the Hill County Health Board discussed during their weekly meeting Friday how they would evaluate potential outbreaks of COVID-19 in Hill County schools, as has been seen in some schools nation-wide, as the schools re-open in the coming weeks.

During her update, Hill County Health Director Kim Larson said there have been plenty of instances throughout the country of schools that have needed to suspend in-person instruction shortly after re-opening and that the health department would be monitoring the situation in the county carefully.

“I’ve been watching that, and if anything is starting, hopefully, we can stop it before it gets out of hand,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of that across the nation, Notre Dame, Michigan State, University of North Carolina all closed within a week of opening because they had so many student cases. In Georgia, in about six days they had over 1,000 kids in quarantine.”

Health Board Member Kristi Kline asked Larson and Hill County Health Officer Jessica Sheehy if there was a number that they would consider high enough for them to advise the suspension of in-class activities.

Larson said such a number can’t be given responsibly.

“It’s just really not possible,” she said, “… I think you have to take the whole situation into account. Where that case came from? If we’re able to trace it back to a certain point and we’re able to find the contact and keep it from spreading things won’t be shut down as quickly as if we get five or 10 cases and we can’t connect them.”

Sheehy said their standards are more qualitative.

“It’s more of is it community spread or can we localize it to a contact? Were we able to get in there quickly enough? Is it just one team or one class or was it the whole school, etc.,” she said.

She said the department and the schools they’re working with are trying to be proactive, so no one is taken by surprise should cases see an uptick.

“When we get a case, we are going to get more,” she said.

Larson said she understands that the lack of a hard and fast number might be frustrating to people, but the department just doesn’t have one.

“(There is no) black and white answer. I know we would all like one, but there really isn’t one,” she said.

Kline said she appreciated the answer and believed that the fact that the department takes so much into account needs to be public knowledge so people don’t assume decisions are being made arbitrarily.

“I think that needs to go out to the public, because they don’t always know, and they might thing that maybe decisions are arrived at from a different angle,” she said.

Sheehy and Larson said most of the past week had been spent working with schools on re-opening plans.

“All of them have been working very hard, just encouraging parents and staff and family members to be patient with the process. This really has been a lengthy ordeal for (the schools),” Sheehy said.

Larson said she recently did a presentation for all St. Jude Thaddeus School staff on COVID-19 and safety measures and said it seems to have been well received.

She said institutions she’s been communicating with seem to be working together well in general.

“I’ve had a lot of calls this week, whether it’s with the state or the hospital or (Montana State University-) Northern or Havre Public Schools,” she said. “They’re working well together I think.”

Hill County Attorney Karen Alley said she spent time last week assisting Sheehy and Larson with school re-openings and Hill County Sanitarian-in-Training Will Lorett said his department would begin school inspections next week.

Hill County Commissioner Mike Wendland said he’s seen great enthusiasm for younger children going back to school despite the possibility of more cases arising.

“I know, seeing on social media, that the younger kids were anxious to get back to school whether they were worried about COVID or not,” he said, “I’m not so sure about the older kids, I didn’t see much about them. But we’ll see what happens with the schools re-opening, if we see a big uptick in COVID cases.”

Sheehy also provided a general update on what is going on with COVID-19 in the county and the state.

She said there are 1,329 active cases in Montana, with 142 new cases being reported on Friday.

“That’s pretty much consistently where the new cases have been falling every day,” she said.

Sheehy said Hill County had 51 total cases as of Friday, with 6 active 43 recovered, and no active hospitalizations.

That had been updated by Sunday night with one new case Saturday, 52 total cases, seven active and 43 recovered with two deaths in the county.

Hill County has performed just more than 1,200 tests with one pending, Sheehy said.

She also addressed a common complaint, she said, she’s heard regarding the state’s website and assured everyone that she understands their irritation.

“I know it’s frustrating that the state’s website isn’t always updated, it’s frustrating for us too, they certainly are working on it,” she said.

She advised that people interested in keeping up to date should follow the health department online.

“The most accurate information comes from us whether it’s on our Facebook or webpage,” she said.

She also said she’s been following the discussion going on at the state level about testing, particularly about all the different labs that can process tests.

However, despite the recent improvements made to the wait times of those tests as a result of new labs becoming available, Hill County will be focusing on symptomatic testing for now.

The next COVID-19 update by the Health Department will be Aug. 18 at 1 p.m.


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