OC Officials Plan for Potential COVID Outbreaks at Local Schools

September 26, 2020 Updated: September 27, 2020

Orange County officials are preparing for potential outbreaks of COVID-19 in area schools as they gradually reopen for in-person learning in the coming weeks.

Dr. Matthew Zahn, medical director of the communicable disease control division at the Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA), said on a Sept. 24 media call that investigators are responding within 24 hours to any reports of a positive case of COVID, at both schools and elsewhere, and making sure that those involved are aware of all the recommended actions.

“That means any person, child, or adult who has a case, we are reaching out to and identifying any contacts they have,” Zahn said.

“If they have a school contact, then we will identify whether there’s a risk or a contact at that school. And if there is, then we will reach out to the school immediately.”

If a school experiences two or more cases within a two-week period of time in a specific social group—for example, within the same classroom—that’s an even greater concern. But it wouldn’t qualify as an actual outbreak unless the transmission of the virus happens directly at the school, Zahn said.

According to state guidelines, if 5 percent or more of a school’s population is infected within two weeks, the school will need to close back down for at least another two weeks.

Dr. Margaret Bredehoft, the OCHCA’s deputy director of public health services, said each school district is required by the state to develop its own plan for dealing with smaller outbreaks.

It will be up to the school to decide how much information to provide to the public about COVID-19 cases at the school, Bredehoft said. County officials will act only as advisers.

“The schools are working with their counsel to make a determination of what they will post and not post [publicly],” she said during the call.

“We are just partners to help them make a decision, but we do not make the decisions for the school.”

Zahn said his team will make sure anyone directly affected by a positive case in a school setting is made aware of it. However, it’s important to understand that the risk of COVID-19 is not isolated to only schools or classrooms, he said.

“I think people need to understand that there’s a low-level risk of COVID in our community, and that’s going to be ongoing,” he said.

Dr. David Núñez, medical director of community and nursing services for OCHCA, said each school’s individual plan is subject to change—and everyone is encouraged to provide feedback and make suggestions to the school for improvement.

Núñez said it’s very important for anyone with symptoms to be in contact with their health care provider to make arrangements to get tested.

“It’s incredibly important that everyone in the community is aware of the range of symptoms that can present with COVID-19 and to be aware of potential exposure to cases,” he said.

K–12 schools in Orange County were allowed to open up for in-person learning on Sept. 22, two weeks after the county moved up from the purple to the red tier in the state’s monitoring list.

County officials will make an announcement next week regarding whether Orange County qualifies to move up to the orange tier, the next level in the state’s monitoring system.

This would allow retail businesses and shopping malls to operate at full capacity, with common areas closed, while restaurants, museums, movie theaters, and churches could transition from 25 percent to 50 percent capacity.

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