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New Union County COVID quarantine agreement with schools

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Surgical masks are often worn to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Surgical masks are often worn to limit the spread of COVID-19.

ctoth@newsobserver.com

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Union County dispute over COVID rules

Widespread quarantining of students has led to weeks-long arguing over public health authority and best practices.

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After threats of legal action, Union County’s public school district has agreed to work with the county’s health department to ensure COVID-19 contact tracing steps and quarantine requirements will be followed.

The Union County Public Health Department and Union County Public Schools agreed Wednesday on a process for identifying and excluding students and staff who are identified as being a positive case or a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

The issue of quarantine rules for “close contacts” — when a student or staff member has been exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19 within a six-foot range for at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period — has been disputed for weeks.

A previously agreed-upon plan for how the schools and county would work together on positive cases and quarantine measure was in place, but evidently the process was failing, prompting Public Health Director Dennis Joyner to threaten legal action late last week.

According to the new memorandum, signed Wednesday, UCPS agrees to promptly share with the county information that will help identify likely close contacts of a positive case of COVID-19 in the “seated classroom setting” soon after notice of a positive case in the classroom.

“When the county receives from UCPS the list of reasonably likely close contacts of positive cases, the county will promptly begin its contact tracing,” the memorandum states.

Another contentious point is also addressed in the agreement: County health officials will, the document says, “make the final determination as to which students and staff will be instructed to quarantine” if deemed a close contact. That refers generally to a 7, 10 or 14-day period where a teacher or student would proactively stay home if someone they’ve had close contact with is diagnosed with COVID.

UCPS also has agreed to “take reasonable steps to ensure individuals who have been identified for isolation or quarantine are not permitted on school property,” the agreement states.

As The Charlotte Observer has previously reported, the tension between school officials and health leaders came to a head earlier this month when UCPS board members voted to effectively suspend widespread quarantining of students. The vote allowed thousands of students deemed “close contacts” to immediately return to school, and directed school staff, such as nurses, to cease substantial efforts toward contact tracing. Both contact tracing and proactive close contact quarantining are key steps recommended by health experts to cut down on possible coronavirus outbreaks in schools, where many children are not yet able to be vaccinated.

That prompted outcry both from parents and at the highest level of public health administration in North Carolina, with state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen telling school board members the district could face legal action if the policy were not rescinded.

At the time, nearly 7,000 students (close to 1 of every 6) in UCPS were in quarantine, the majority of whom had not tested positive for COVID. Most school districts in North Carolina are avoiding such drastic quarantine interruptions by requiring masks, which not only provides protection but also reduces the need for mass quarantines under state health regulations. Union County is one of the few districts in the state leaving masks optional.

Another school board vote Sept. 20 revised its COVID-19 protocols — namely to reduce the length of quarantining for students who haven’t tested positive while also agreeing the health department could enforce quarantine periods for anyone deemed a close contact. Another part of the board’s policy change said any student returning from quarantine before a 14-day period needs to wear a mask indoors at school.

But since then, according to Joyner, health department employees attempting to follow up with students and staff after possible exposure have been limited, due to lack of cooperation from school officials.

Union schools, health ‘unified’

In a joint statement issued about the new agreement, the health department and UCPS leaders say: “We share a unified goal to protect students, families, and the broader Union County community and look forward to our work together.”

The process announced Wednesday spells out a shared responsibility for contact tracing efforts but strictly spells out health department officials will issue quarantine instructions.

Previously, Union County Health Director Dennis Joyner had sent a list of demands to UCPS, alleging “The scant information we have been receiving from UCPS is insufficient to permit the local health department to carry out its statutory duty to protect the students and the public from transmission of a dangerous communicable disease.”

Wednesday’s agreement with the school system appears to mirror the demands from Joyner’s letter.

As of Friday, the most recent data available, around 1,500 people (mostly UCPS students) are not allowed at school due to having COVID or having been exposed. That translates to around five people quarantined in Union schools for every one positive case detected.

Joyner has said more students than necessary have been forced to quarantine, due to his department not getting quality information about close contacts from school workers.

This story was originally published September 29, 2021 6:24 PM.

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