Coronavirus updates

Who is considered a Covid close contact?

As officials investigate school-based cases, students and teachers are not considered contacts if masking, social distancing protocols adhered to

By Lola Duffort/VTDigger

On contact-tracing Covid-19 cases within schools, the state is following the lead of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and generally considers anyone who comes within 6 feet of a confirmed or probable case for at least 15 minutes to be a close contact.

But since many Vermont schools adhere to social distancing guidelines, teachers and students who attend class with people who ultimately test positive for the virus often aren’t always — or often — considered close contacts.

And that worries some educators.

“Starting this year, I had no idea that, if I was teaching and a student in my room tested positive, I would not be considered a close contact, and I would not be given the ability to stay home and stay safe,” one Chittenden County teacher said after one of their students tested positive after attending class in-person two days in a row.

The teacher was not required to get a test or quarantine, but sought out a test at an urgent care center. Their results came back negative.

Experts stressed, as Vermont Dept. of Health officials have, that each contact-tracing effort must be conducted on a case-by-case basis, depending on a variety of factors, taking into account things like testing availability, level of community spread, and ventilation.

But as a rule of thumb, epidemiologists say the CDC’s standard — and Vermont’s — is a reasonable one.

If students and staff are masked and 6 feet apart for the duration of their interaction, “the risk in that scenario is very low,” said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, an adjunct professor in the Division of Infectious Disease at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Klausner said it would be perfectly understandable for an educator to take a test for peace of mind if a student in their classroom attended school while positive for the virus. But it needn’t be mandated.

“One way to deal with anxiety is we test people. Likely there’s going to be a negative test, but they’re reassured by that, and that’s OK; that’s part of medicine,” he said. “But that’s a little different than public health, where we’re trying to do interventions and implement strategies, where we want to control the spread of infection that are reasonable, incremental, and allow the world to go on.”

Dr. Emily Gurley, an associate scientist in the Division of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, said that while there are no completely risk-free in-person interactions while the virus remains, it makes sense for students or teachers not to be considered close contacts if masking and social distancing protocols are really adhered to.

“Under those types of circumstances, we don’t have evidence that that’s a high risk for transmission. Obviously I understand the concerns, and I don’t mean to dismiss them. But the evidence that we have says that it’s very unlikely that transmission occurred,”
she said.

Quick, easily accessible testing is key to the best pandemic response, she said. But if there aren’t enough tests to go around, who gets them needs to be prioritized.

“It’s impractical if by doing so then you reduce the ability for people who are sick to get quick tests, and people who are in close contact to get tests. And so there may be bandwidth issues there,” Gurley said.

Vermont had 25 confirmed cases of Covid-19 at 19 K-12 schools as of Tuesday, Oct. 27, state officials said at the governor’s twice-weekly press conference.

“I don’t want people to feel that this is out of control in Vermont,” said Gov. Phil Scott. “We expected that there would be cases as we opened schools, as we opened up the spigot a little bit more. We said there would be cases. And there are — but not that many.”

The Montpelier elementary school cases were also considered to be the first instance of Covid-19 transmission within a K-12 setting, according to state officials. But Health Commissioner Mark Levine said mitigation measures were working there, as well.

“Because of the way they arranged students in pods, and with specific teachers, it was very easy to understand who was most at risk, and what that meant for the school at large, and make sure that the appropriate population within the school was quarantined,” Levine said.

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