PORTLAND, Ore. — Health officials in Multnomah County are asking families to limit their social gatherings and try to mitigate the risk of infections at home so it does not bleed into the school system as students gear up to head back to class.
“Right now, Multnomah County recommends not gathering with people outside of your household for Labor Day this year,” said lead health officer for the Multnomah County Health Department, Dr. Jennifer Vines. “Postponing your event or going virtual is ideal. Otherwise having a small group outdoors and spread out is the next best thing.”
The advice was not just for Labor Day weekend but to mitigate unnecessary risks that might bring infections into schools. Unlike last school year, there are no metrics that counties or school districts need to meet in order to have students in for full-time in-person learning.
This comes as Oregon sets records for the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, weeks before the peak of the delta spike in the state. Hospitals are being overrun with COVID cases, health care workers are being brought in from across the country to assist and people in need of surgery are waiting as hospitals deal with full beds and a staff shortage. Hospital workers have been begging Oregonians to get vaccinated for weeks.
Vines said that if a school reaches an “unacceptable level of transmission" that steps would be taken, but the measure of “unacceptable” was not a hard and fast rule.
Jamie Smith with the Multnomah Education Service District (MESD) said that they will work to address possible exposures or infections in schools but that parents, teachers and staff will have to work together. He said that staff at schools will work as boots on the ground to report infections and possible exposure.
Only students or staff that exhibit symptoms will be tested on the premises of schools. Smith said most middle and high schools have the capability to rapid test those with symptoms.
If someone within a school system has become positive, Smith said that MESD will gather as much information upfront as it can before its communicable disease team determines if there was potential exposure to others.
“Based on that information, in collaboration with county public health, we provide the appropriate timeline for that individual and they provide the appropriate timeline for those individuals as well,” Smith said. “There is typically a community notification sent to all the individuals that are associated with that school or school site to let them know a positive case has been identified and what steps are being taken to maintain the safety of that school community and letting them know what the next steps are.”
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The overarching message from health officials was that keeping kids and the community safe as children return to school is a shared responsibility and that parents, staff and kids will need to be flexible as they work through all the layered and theoretical precautions that have been taken. When students return to schools, many of the precautions will be put to the test and adjustments may need to be made.
“Vaccines have changed the game,” said Vines. “There are no hard and fast thresholds.” She said the main goal is trying to support schools so kids can remain in the best learning environment possible, and part of that means weighing the risks and rewards. Schools have been working to build an environment that will cut down on the possibility of transmission while keeping students in desks.
Health officials urged parents to make sure their students have face masks that fit well and that they know how to wear them properly.