County officials are working to ensure that schools across Cape Cod are able to have a safe and healthy start to the school year.
Many districts in Barnstable County are welcoming students back into school buildings in some fashion next month, whether its entirely in person or a combination remote/in-person hybrid model.
To address the steps that are being taken across the county, a webinar was held on Thursday, August 20, with officials from Barnstable County, Cape Cod Healthcare, and local fire departments taking part.
Dr. Kevin Mulroy, vice president and chief quality officer for Cape Cod Healthcare, said there has been upwards of 20,000 COVID-19 tests administered in the county. Through August so far, the positive test rate has been about half a percent, he said.
He said most of the positives have been in patients more than 60 years old.
John J. Burke, chief of the Sandwich Fire Department, discussed the plan for testing school employees in town. He said every staff member at the schools will be given a COVID-19 antibody test before returning to work. Any staff member who tests positive for the antibodies will be given a nasal swab test to make sure he or she is not infected with the disease.
The same testing was done for municipal employees before Sandwich town buildings were reopened in May.
This plan does not include testing students. Testing for staff is on track to start on Wednesday,, August 26, Chief Burke said. Staff members will have the opportunity to be tested monthly through February.
County public health nurse Deidre Arvidson said that while no single action will entirely eliminate risk in the schools, risk can be mitigated by following the protocols that have been in place since the beginning of the pandemic, including mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing and surface disinfecting.
Additionally, Ms. Arvidson said, it is rare for the disease to be transmitted through passing contact, such as children passing each other in the hallways. This is especially true when children are masked.
A question was asked anonymously about whether it is really necessary to remove all toys, carpets and books from classrooms and if it would be safe for children to play together. Ms. Arvidson said that the findings have been that the risk of transmission from two children tossing a ball back and forth, for example, has been low. However, she said that minimizing the amount of shared equipment is a good idea.
“It’s going to be really hard to keep, especially small children, from being near each other,” she said.
She said games that require students to physically spread out should be encouraged and that if there are fewer materials in a classroom, that means that there are fewer surfaces to keep clean.
Dr. Mulroy said proper hand-washing and sanitizing are critically important.
“When I walk into a store and I see that they want me to disinfect as soon as I walk in, it makes my day,” he said.
He said that the more hand hygiene that can be promoted in the schools, the better.
To help make ordering cleaning supplies easier for districts, a centralized supply ordering service has been set up by the county. Jennifer Frates said that a contract has been set up with vendors such as W.B. Mason, Grainger, Fisher, and McKesson to allow districts to order personal protective equipment, plexiglass dividers, and non-contact infrared thermometers.
The county is also looking into opportunities through the Cape Cod Collaborative or the county to coordinate getting supplies to the schools, which may allow for bulk-buying discounts.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health announced this week that students returning to school will be required to be vaccinated against influenza by the end of the calendar year.
The requirement applies to children ages 6 months and up who are attending childcare, preschool, kindergarten through 12th grade, and colleges and universities within the state. At the college level the mandate applies to people under age 30 who are working toward their graduate or undergraduate degrees, as well as all students in health-related fields.
The mandate will apply to students who are learning remotely as well as those attending school in person, with an exception made for college students who will be attending classes entirely remotely, with no plans to visit campus for any reason throughout the year.
This decision is meant to reduce flu-related respiratory illnesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In order to assist with this mandate in Barnstable County, Mr. O’Brien said, he expects to see flu shot clinics set up as they usually are in the fall.
“Boards of health are still going to be very involved with flu clinics in the towns,” he said. “I think it’s going to be critical for everyone to get flu vaccines this year.”
Ms. Arvidson said there is already a drive-through clinic planned for Saturday, September 26, at the Barnstable County Complex on Route 6A in Barnstable Village. The clinic will run from 8 AM to noon and will be an option for anyone over the age of 6 months.
At a news conference on Monday, August 17, Governor Charles D. Baker Jr. said that of the more than 300 school districts that have presented their school reopening plans, about 70 percent have chosen to return to in-person schooling, at least part of the time. The governor said that for most counties in the state, returning in person is appropriate given the current public health data.
The state’s COVID-19 data dashboard indicates that there has been a total of 1,582 confirmed cases of the virus in the county since the outbreak began in March. This count no longer includes probable cases of the disease.
A total of 164 people have died on Cape Cod from the illness. That number includes both probable and confirmed cases.
Based on numbers provided by Vaira Harik, deputy director of the Barnstable County Department of Human Services, there has been a total of 1,813 confirmed and probable cases of the disease identified on Cape Cod as of Tuesday, August 18.
Sean O’Brien, director of the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment, said the county is working to get the daily counts of the disease within the county on its website to compensate for the state no longer providing those daily numbers.
Ms. Harik said she has been scrambling since the state announced it was dropping its daily counts last week. She said there may be a lag of a day or two when it comes to the information she can post, but that it will be posted.
“Our team is doing our absolute best to provide as up-to-date information as we possibly can,” she said.
She said her department has been contacted over the past week by many people who have concerns with the lack of information from the state.
On the Upper Cape there has been a total of 168 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Bourne, 241 cases in Falmouth, 76 cases in Mashpee and 104 cases in Sandwich.
There are currently no COVID-19 patients being treated in either of the hospitals on Cape Cod.