For the third time in three weeks, a major COVID-19 exposure event has occurred in classrooms at Vashon Island School District (VISD), this time at Chautauqua Elementary School (CES).
The news comes amidst a continuing surge of cases on the island. According to Vashon’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), there have been 51 new cases on the island since July, with almost 18 percent of them occurring in school-aged children.
The latest incidence of classroom exposures for students at CES comes on the heels of two previous exposure events at McMurray Middle School, which islanders were informed about in emails from the district on Sept. 6 and Sept. 15.
In response to the first two cases, Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) led swift efforts to test a total of more than three dozen people, all but four of whom were students, who had been determined by VISD to have close contact with the infected students.
In both McMurray incidents, all test results came back negative.
The latest incident, at CES, was outlined in a community email sent on Sunday, Sept. 19 by Superintendent Slade McSheehy, who wrote that Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) had reported the positive test of an infected student this past weekend. The student, he said, was now isolating at home.
In the email, McSheehy said that extensive contact tracing identified six other students as close contacts of the infected person, with no contacts identified on a bus or among Chautauqua staff. Family members of the six students, he said, had been “notified as appropriate.”
The email did not provide information about recommendations made to the six families regarding quarantine, though it instructed those who had not been identified as close contacts to call the MRC at (844)469-4554 or visit the Washington State Department of Health’s website at doh.wa.gov for more guidance if they were still concerned about possible exposure.
Later that day, McSheehy provided more details about the incident to The Beachcomber, saying that the district had directed the six close contacts of the infected CES student to stay home from school for 10 days, with a PCR test on the eighth day.
PCR testing, which can be performed on Vashon by the MRC, is considered to be the gold standard of coronavirus testing, with more reliable results than rapid antigen tests, which are sold by pharmacies and give results in 15 minutes. MRC and other experts regard the rapid antigen tests as very reliable for symptomatic patients but not as reliable for those without symptoms.
McSheehy also told The Beachcomber that all contact tracing and follow-up recommendations for students affected by the incident had been conducted and determined by VISD’s nursing services staff and the school’s COVID-19 coordinators, CES principal Rebecca Goertzel and VISD Director of Student Services Kathryn Coleman.
Neither Public Health – Seattle & King County nor the MRC took part in the school contact tracing effort, which looked at a total of 16 classmates of the infected student, as well as staff members who interacted with the student over a time period from Sept. 14 to 16, he said.
According to McSheehy, the contact tracers made exposure determinations by following complex guideline metrics from Washington’s Department of Health (DOH) that identify close contacts according to time shared with an infected person, over a 24-hour period, at distances that range from three to six feet.
Full Department of Health guidelines, he said, can be found at vashonsd.org/coronavirusupdates.
VISD and MRC
Throughout the pandemic, the MRC has conducted community contact tracing, at first informally and then later, in partnership with Public Health Seattle & King County (PHSKC).
Led by a group of doctors with 100 combined years of expertise and experience in internal medicine, pediatrics, infectious disease, immunology and molecular diagnostics, the group has been at the forefront of Vashon’s pandemic response.
The MRC worked with Vashon’s Emergency Operations Center and the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) to establish Vashon’s COVID-testing site at the dawn of the pandemic and has since advised many island businesses and nonprofits on safe re-opening protocols and measures to take following infections of employees.
The MRC, along with other community volunteer corps, also led Vashon’s highly successful vaccination campaign, which has resulted in the community having one of the highest percentages of vaccination for those 12 and older of any community in King County.
The MRC has advised the school district in many ways throughout the pandemic and is now engaged in discussions with the district that will better define the ways in which they will work together in the future.
Going forward, the school district is working to develop a “hybrid” protocol where VISD will conduct initial contact tracing within school grounds and then refer families to MRC for consultation on potential risks of spread to other family members and the broader community.
Dr. Jim Bristow, of the MRC, said he believes the updated protocol will be helpful in terms of building a step into VISD’s process where MRC experts can work directly with families and their students by providing advice and public health education.
“The District has agreed to refer all cases to us after the ‘permission to return to school decision’ is made so we can further evaluate how an exposure might spread from classrooms into the community, and how a student exposure might affect others in a household, particularly those at risk due to age or existing health conditions,” he said.
Bristow acknowledged that current DOH and PHSKC guidelines are less conservative than those of the MRC.
“In an ideal world, the state Department of Health and Public Health – Seattle & King County would adopt more conservative guidelines for when kids are told they can be allowed back into school,” he said. “For example, the Vashon MRC team of doctors feels it’s unnecessarily risky in the current Delta surge conditions to allow exposed vaccinated students or teachers back in school until a quarantine period has passed and they get a negative PCR test.”
Rapid tests, he added, are helpful for people with symptoms, but PCR tests work well in every type of case.
Still, he said the MRC doctors strongly support the steps the school district is taking to strengthen its COVID safety program, including hiring an additional nurse and a COVID safety coordinator to assist School Nurse Pam Kirkpatrick in speeding up contact tracing and make it more thorough.
“That’s one key to containing the spread of infections,” Bristow said. “Another key is regular testing of unvaccinated students and staff and aggressive testing of exposed individuals if they stay in school. We’ve provided the district with our disease containment rationale for doing that and we’re hoping these things can be put into place quickly because the state is now making funding available for additional staff and even providing test materials at no charge.”
This month, the MRC and Vashon’s EOC worked with the District in an After Action Review (AAR) process to analyze the first two of the recent major exposure events. The AAR process helps all the participants to understand in retrospect how they responded and what possible improvements could be made in future incidents of possible exposure to students.
Rick Wallace, manager of the EOC, facilitated the AAR session last week and said that these discussions are a staple of emergency management.
“It’s how we learn lessons from our shared experiences,” he said. “Everyone sits at the table and we all understand that the only goal is to do a better job. It’s a ‘no fault’ discussion.”
Additionally, Wallace said that the most important part of an AAR is the improvement plan that follows a verbal consensus in the meeting and results in detailed written operational protocols and procedures.
“So, that’s going to be a crucial next step, for us to review the new documents as the school district updates its protocol for action steps when a student or teacher is infected and others in the school community have been exposed,” he said.