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School board members press health director about vaccines, safety of school reopenings

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Alamance-Burlington school board members quizzed Alamance County health director Tony Lo Giudice during their latest work session about when ABSS teachers will be eligible to receive one of the two vaccines for COVID-19 (see related story, this edition).

“If you had to guess, are you talking summertime before teachers could get vaccinated?” school board member Donna Westbrooks asked the county’s health director.

“All things being equal, weeks – if not months,” Lo Giudice responded. “We could see an increase in March for more vaccine in the state, coming from the federal government.”

 

Alamance County Health Director Tony Lo Giudice earlier this month during a COVID-19 update to Alamance County’s commissioners.
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Lo Giudice told school board members Tuesday afternoon that teachers are included in the third group that will be eligible to receive the vaccine, and the vaccine is currently being administered, by appointment only, to “group two,” which includes people 65 and older. Healthcare workers and first responders were in the first group that became eligible to receive the vaccine, according to Alamance County’s health department.

The county receives approximately 175,000 doses per week, and 13,820 Alamance County residents, or about 8 percent of the county’s population, had been vaccinated as of Monday, Lo Giudice told school board members during their work session Tuesday afternoon. “Demand continues to outpace supply,” he added.

“You do not have the authority to reserve X amount of doses?” school board chairman Allison Gant asked Lo Giudice, apparently referring to the possibility of reserving vaccine for teachers.

“That is correct,” the health director said. “The state gives us direction for when we can move to the next group.”

How long either vaccine will protect against COVID-19 is “currently unknown,” Lo Giudice confirmed later Tuesday for The Alamance News.

The two vaccines, developed by Moderna and Pfizer, to receive emergency use authorization so far are still undergoing clinical trial studies on their effectiveness and other issues. “Both entered Phase 3 trials around the end of July [2020],” Lo Giudice told the newspaper following his discussion with the school board. “I mention this because the vaccines’ ongoing protection has not reached a year of study. But the manufacturers do continue to evaluate.”
“What are the things that you consider we have to do [to] reopen safely?” school board vice chairman Tony Rose asked Lo Giudice during the work session.


Is school board wavering on March 1, 8 school start? https://alamancenews.com/is-school-board-wavering-over-reopenings-planned-for-march-1-8/


The health department director pointed to existing COVID-19 precautions – i.e. “the three Ws,” that include wearing masks; staying (or waiting) six feet apart; and washing your hands for 20 seconds – that state and local public health officials have emphasized repeatedly since the spring of 2020. Lo Giudice also said school officials should conduct daily screenings for COVID-19 symptoms, which in recent months has become a nearly universal prerequisite for entering most government buildings and public facilities in Alamance County and around the state.

Rose also pressed Lo Giudice Tuesday on whether he had a recommendation for “the types of filters or frequency of filters being changed” in HVAC systems in school buildings.

The latest guidelines from the CDC outline a number of suggestions – developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the professional organization for the HVAC industry – for creating a “healthy environment” at school. ASHRAE has recommended installing special air filtration systems to improve indoor air quality, according to a report, “Guidance for Building Operations during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” a report that was issued in May 2020 by the professional organization representing the HVAC industry.

Lo Giudice said that, if windows can be opened to allow air to circulate, they should be. “I think, for the [CDC] guidance, it was just a consideration,” he explained.

Rose asked Lo Giudice if he had a “recommendation for the types of filters or the frequency” for when air filters should be changed in HVAC systems in school buildings.
“I do not,” Lo Giudice told the school board’s vice chairman.

Pointing to what he termed the “CDC core indicators for risk,” Rose pressed the health director about whether he thinks ABSS should wait until the county is in the “moderate risk category” for transmission of COVID-19.

“I’m drawing a blank,” Lo Giudice said of the CDC core indicators, explaining that the latest data showed that “even among high community spread, transmission tends to be lower for schools that were in session.”

School board member Patsy Simpson questioned the health director about the potential for transmission in poorly-ventilated areas, pointing to studies which she said had shown that, even if a person didn’t get infected at school, “they can still transfer it to somebody else.”
“Transmission is low to occur in schools and low to occur in children when compared to adults,” Lo Giudice responded. “When you have good, strong mitigation strategies in place, the likelihood of spread is reduced.”

Simpson asked Lo Giudice whether he thinks it’s safe for students to eat meals in their classrooms “with their masks off.” Under the current plan for reopening, students would receive “grab-and-go” meals that they would take back to their classrooms to eat, to avoid having large groups of students congregate in one place, which increases the potential for spreading the virus.

“As long as [students] wash their hands and put their masks back on when they’re finished eating” the risk of transmission is significantly reduced, Lo Giudice said.

Rose said that some activities inherently make it impossible to meet the six-foot social distancing guidelines. For example, he said, some students may have to be in restraints.
“It might not be the case, at all times, that we can be socially-distanced,” Lo Giudice acknowledged, telling Rose, “I’m trying to walk around your question.”

The vice chairman pressed the health director to weigh in on the potential risk posed by those situations.

“It really depends on the situation that’s in front of you as to what you can and can’t do,” Lo Giudice said.

“Our approach has been to focus on additional protections for staff in those settings,” superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson said in response to Rose’s inquiry about situations that make it difficult to practice social distancing. “The board provided us direction at a previous meeting,” the superintendent pointed out this week, adding that those preparations would continue unless the board instructs the administration otherwise.

Dr. Jean Maness, director of elementary education for ABSS, said later in the discussion that pre-kindergarten and adapted curriculum students (or disabled students, some whom require assistance with basic functions such as using the toilet) returned for in-person instruction last fall. “We are going to have issues,” she said. “Our pre-K and [adapted curriculum students] have already been back; principals have handled it very well.

“If you’ve been around Walmart or what have you – our kids are out,” Maness pointed out. “They understand they’ve got to have these masks; they know they’ve got to follow these guidelines.”

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