In a community forum on Sept. 1, Tri-County Health Care President and CEO Joel Beiswenger, chief medical officer Dr. Ben Hess, Wadena-Deer Creek Superintendent Lee Westrum and Sourcewell director of regional programs Paul Drange emphasized the community following health and safety measures like wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and hand washing for schools to remain open. The community case rates can impact how schools transition between in-person, hybrid and distance learning throughout the year.
The number of cumulative positive COVID-19 cases in Wadena County have increased from 30 to 49 between Aug. 17 and 31 after 23 cases between mid-March and July 30. Beiswenger said the testing at Tri-County has not increased, with a consistent average of 17-20 completed daily, but the positivity rate has doubled from 1.3% in the beginning time frame to 2% currently. This means there is more COVID-19 activity in the area, according to Beiswenger.
“Even though, again, the numbers are still relatively small in total, that uptick in the positivity rate is concerning,” Beiswenger said.
While there are new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that discuss testing changes, Hess said the hospital is not currently restricting or shutting down testing based on availability.
The hospital will continue to have temporary and permanent negative pressure areas which remove the air from those areas to outside the building instead of circulating the air that could contain virus particles through the building. Starting next week Tri-County satellite clinics will also see patients who have potential COVID-19 symptoms rather than only coming to the hospital, according to Beiswenger.
The gathering of students and staff as they return to schools could increase the potential risk of spreading the coronavirus, as Beiswenger said.
Westrum reviewed elements of the school district’s safe learning plan, such as buses running at 50% capacity, increased cleaning, no self serve food items or keypad entries for purchasing food in the cafeterias, drop off zones for different grade levels and wearing masks. He also said the ventilation systems will bring in as much fresh air as possible. The drop off zones are as follows:
Elementary: Prekindergarten-2nd grade students south side of the school by the new playground; 3-4th grade students on Second St. in the diagonal parking spots that will be blocked off; Hwy 29 on the north side will also be available. Parents are asked to drop off their students only on the north side so students do not have to cross from the south side. Adults will be available outside and inside the school to direct students.
Middle/high school: 5-6th grade students front circle; 7-12th grade students hockey arena parking lot and entering the north entrance; student drivers and staff will have separate entrances.
“We’re excited, we’re happy and we know it’s going to be different but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a great school year,” Westrum said.
Westrum asks that parents partner with the school on encouraging students to wear a mask, including younger students practicing now, to have the option of in-person learning for as long as possible. Parents are also to screen children daily before sending them to school, and if their student has a fever to keep them home with the understanding that there will be higher absence rates this year.
In planning for when positive cases of COVID-19 occur within the schools, Westrum noted this will be a case by case basis with a focus on identifying close contacts, which are defined as “being within 6 feet of someone else for 15 minutes or more.” Students will have assigned seating on buses, at lunch and in their classrooms to easily determine close contacts. If there are a high number of cases in one cohort, they could transition to distance learning for the quarantine period or only a few students could have to quarantine, according to Westrum. W-DC students from kindergarten to eighth grade will be in classroom cohorts for the year. Hess added that there is also a difference in scenarios based on students socially distancing and wearing masks or not, where following these precautions could impact students staying in school.
As a continued concern is students wearing masks, Hess encouraged parents that masks are “very safe” including being able to breathe, and despite their stuffiness and uncomfortability students will get used to them. Masks can “significantly improve and reduce your risk of infections,” as Hess said, including in high risk situations like a large gathering indoors where it is hard to social distance and people are talking or singing.
Over the past month, Sourcewell has been training a team of three staff members to act as liaisons between the schools and the Minnesota Departments of Health and Education as questions or concerns surrounding COVID-19 occur, as Drange said. Most recently, the nine service cooperatives in Minnesota, including Sourcewell, helped distribute personal protective equipment from the state to schools.
“We’re excited to be part of that solution in supporting our schools and supporting our community as we ready to go back to school,” Drange said. “We’re very confident that our systems are ready to support and teachers are ready to go.”
With a possible surge of cases in October or November in the area and state, the importance of flattening the curve has continued value, though with the focus of having students in school, businesses remaining open and avoiding large-scale closures, according to Beiswenger and Hess. The Minnesota health care systems have been able to prepare for a possible surge since the beginning of the pandemic although shortages still exist, as Beiswenger and Hess said.
“When you’re dealing with a virus like this, it has the potential for exponential growth and so at any given point in time it only takes a few cases to turn into hundreds and then thousands of cases, so we’re always flattening the curve,” Hess said.