Local health, school leaders still waiting for state COVID guidance

Local Coronavirus Coverage

‘Thanksgiving weekend makes everything kind of in slow motion

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – School administrators and public health leaders in the Tri-Cities region are still waiting for further instruction from Nashville after Governor Bill Lee signed the COVID-19 omnibus law.

The law redefined how public health officials are meant to look at basic public health practices, Sullivan County Regional Health Department Medical Director Dr. Stephen May explained.

“The use of ‘quarantine’ and ‘isolation’ in the law was used as synonymous, as opposed to public health ‘isolation’ refers to specifically a case; ‘quarantine’ refers specifically to a contact,” he said.

Furthermore, May said the law changed basic public health policies adopted long ago.

“The language that was removed from our isolation and quarantine guidelines was ‘must’ and changed to ‘should.’ So isolated cases should continue to isolate and that’s the keyword — should, not must. And with quarantine, a similar type of wording change, indicating that it’s predominantly voluntary,” he said.

Under the new law, health leaders can now only request rather than mandate that someone who has tested positive must isolate for the appropriate amount of time — 10 days.

Schools districts told News Channel 11 that the only weapon in their arsenal against the spread of COVID-19 is a communicable disease policy that could be used for literally any contagious disease like the flu, strep, the common cold, or even the novel coronavirus.

The catch is that with COVID-19 not every infected individual is symptomatic, so the concern is that parents who have children test positive for COVID-19 would then still send their children to school.

“Well, the language is certainly very confusing, and that’s where the rules need to be promulgated. And we hope to have guidance on the actual intent of the law versus the actual language of the law. We’re looking at that language, and then the state is promulgating those rules and regulations as to how it’s to be interpreted,” Dr. May said.

Washington County Schools officials hope to use existing school policies to stop the spread.

“If they are a positive case and we’re aware of that, unless they come back with a negative test we’re gonna have to ask them to stay home,” Superintendent Jerry Boyd said Monday.

He said his district would be tackling each potential case on a case-by-case basis.

“As far as us moving forward, we’re just relying on our pre-existing policy around addressing anyone that has symptoms of any disease that could be contagious and dealing with individuals based on the expertise of our school nurses,” he said.

Those school nurses, he explained, are now shifting their focus from identifying and tracing COVID cases to identifying and tracking influenza, streptococcal pharyngitis (strep) and other common wintertime communicable diseases.

The law also stipulates that schools may no longer contact trace, quarantine or isolate students or staff.

“That’s up to the health department to do the contact tracing, to do any quarantining,” Johnson City Schools Superintendent Steve Barnett said.

“We still communicate with the health department if we have a case and there’s a question, but generally we refer our families to the health department.”

Both school districts indicated that the health department is still communicating COVID case data with school and health officials, this echoed in Sullivan County by Dr. May.

He said this law has posed a challenge to public health experts aimed at controlling the spread of the deadly virus.

“It is challenging, but our job continues the same,” May said.

“The biggest game-changer is that I’m really disappointed in is the amount of vaccine uptake. The vaccine spells the end for this disease number one, or at least certainly gives us good control. And this is now a vaccine-preventable illness like measles, mumps, rubella, all childhood diseases. It is a vaccine-preventable illness certainly at preventing hospitalization and death. And those are the two endpoints that I’m most concerned with,” May said.

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