Havre schools reports second COVID-19 case

Health department details grave concerns in recommendation to Havre Public Schools


Last updated 10/5/2020 at 9:37am

Just days after the Hill County Health Department recommended against Havre Public Schools opening the school buildings to more in-class learning, the Havre district reported its second confirmed case of COVID-19.

A release sent out this morning by Interim Superintendent Craig Mueller said the district was notified Thursday of a person associated with district testing positive.

"According to the Hill County Health Department, the district's staff and students were in contact with the individual during the period of possible exposure," the release said. "The individual last had contact with others in our school district at Havre High School Monday.

That was three days prior to the person being confirmed with COVID-19, and the person has not been at the school since Monday, the release said.

If any person associated with the district is at risk of exposure, the Hill County Health Department will be in contact with that person to determine a safe and appropriate course of action, the release said. It is still recommended that any person who feels sick or ill seek out their medical provider for specific instructions. The school district is in contact with the health department and reviewing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to complete cleaning the school and other related facilities.

The other steps taken by the school district include the continuation of social and physical distancing, the use of face coverings, and frequent hand washing and hand sanitizing, the release said, adding people can contact Mueller for details about the measures.

School officials will continue to monitor the situation and will provide further information if and when it becomes available, the release said. 

Hill County Health Department issued Tuesday an official recommendation to Havre Public Schools that it not implement proposed re-opening plans and detailed a number of serious concerns the department has.

The re-opening plans, which were brought by Muller to the Havre Public Schools Board of Trustees at its Sept. 22 meeting, would involve students returning to in-person learning four or five days a week.

"The need and desire for students to be back within the walls of our schools, receiving face to face instruction from our teachers is something that is shared by many in our community, us included," the recommendation, signed by Hill County Public Health Director and Health Officer Kim Larson said, "The harsh reality is, at this moment in time, making that decision isn't as easy as some believe."

Muller praised the health department for its contact tracing efforts.

"We are facing a sharp increase in the number of quarantined students and staff, he said. "This presents challenges to our teaching staff, administrators and to families who have to figure out how to make adjustments to their own schedules and lives with little to no notice. The time and work that the Hill County Health Department puts in to contact tracing and monitoring these cases is appreciated."

He said the health department and the school system share the duty of protecting the safety of their students.

"Our role as a public school is not limited to providing educational services to all students, there is also a responsibility on our end to keep in mind the impact an outbreak might have on our community, and, as Ms. Larson stated in the response, 'mitigating the risk to our community is the best weapon we have against it. We cannot do this alone, everyone must do their part, think of others, and be a part of the solution,'" he said.

He said the school system is continuing its planning and preparation for the return of more students and are also reviewing plans for a return to full remote learning should the community's surge in positive COVID-19 cases continue.

The recommendation sent by Larson said public health professionals like her have the duty and authority to prevent and respond to infectious diseases and place the safety of the public above all other interests and COVID-19 has proven to be a challenge for departments across the country with Hill County Health Department employees working seven days a week.

"Disease investigation, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine are all things that public health has performed and understood for many years," Larson said. "COVID-19 has taken this process and amplified the work that public health professionals must do in order to keep our communities safe and healthy tremendously."

The recommendation contains a number of things that the department feels should be taken into account when the board decides whether or not to implement their new re-opening plan.

As of Sept. 23, the document says, the health department had three contact tracers monitoring more than 100 people as a result of the 30 active cases - at that time - of COVID-19 in the county.

The update today listed 56 active cases in the county with one hospitalization.

One of the confirmed cases listed in Larson's letter was a student at Sunnyside School, which alone resulted in the quarantine or isolation of 28 people who the health department has to keep track of.

Precautions such as limited in-person learning, which makes social distancing possible, the requirement to wear masks, sanitization and other measures have actually made this number much less than it otherwise would be, it says.

The document said if all students and staff been back in school, a situation that would make social distancing impossible, the number of students and staff out due to quarantine would have doubled or tripled, and Sunnyside may have had to have been shut down.

"One thing to think about, from the school's perspective, is, would there have been enough backup staff to step in and cover for those out due to exposure to the case?" the letter said.

The letter said the primary reason the case in Sunnyside and the subsequent contact tracing were able to be handled with efficiency was the staggered approach to in-person learning.

"It allows for quick identification of contacts, and efficient containment of the virus," the letter says, "We do not have to close schools because of it and that is an ideal and sustainable approach. Closing schools over and over due to exposure is not sustainable or effective for students, staff or parents."

The recommendation also raises the concern of how the school system intends to handle a move backward in the event of a major outbreak, or if the state slips backward into Phase 1 of re-opening.

"We did anticipate more cases, so this is not a shock, but understanding the situation is necessary. This week alone we have had a significant rise in cases, including an outbreak in a long-term care facility with high-risk patients who are more likely to be hospitalized."

The recommendation said there is a very real risk of outbreaks resulting in a need for the health department to take action and issue closure orders, although it is not at all what the department wants to do.

"The capacity of our public health system, and health care system in Hill County is something that must always be watched closely, and if those systems cannot contain or manage the workload from the COVID-19 pandemic, closures will have to happen again," the letter said. "This is something we want to avoid, but please understand that if it gets to a point where our resources are expended and we cannot keep up with the workload, a health officer order can and will be issued for closures."


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