HCS adopts shortened quarantine policy
Haywood County Schools will follow new COVID protocol, referred to as “5+5 COVID Guidance,” after a presentation from the Haywood County Health Department during a special called meeting Monday night.
“This is based off of recent CDC updated guidance with respect to isolation and quarantine and when a person can leave the separation phase of isolation and quarantine,” said Dr. Mark Jaben, Haywood County Health Department’s Medical Director.
What is the 5+5 plan? Essentially it is new guidance intended to shorten the isolation period for students and teachers exposed to COVID-19 and/ or those testing positive in order to get them back in school quicker. This is possible because of the less severe nature of the Omicron strain of COVID-19.
Here is how the guidance works. Day zero is considered the first day of symptoms, or the first day of a positive test result for someone who has no symptoms. Students who fall into this boat should isolate themselves from day zero through day five. Even with the Omicron strain, people are most infectious during the first five days of infection.
“The CDC chose five days because, particularly with studies of Omicron, when people got infected they developed symptoms sooner and they perhaps cleared it a little sooner than previous waves,” said Jaben. “What they’re trying to do here is thread the needle between getting people back to work, getting kids in school, and then knowing that there is going to be some degree of contagiousness going on.”
On day six, students who have been isolating should have a rapid antigen test. If the student has a negative test, has had no fever for 24 hours and other symptoms are improving, they can return to school, being sure to consistently mask during days six through 10. (The school system had previously been operating under a 10-day isolation system for people who were infected, with no test required to leave isolation and return to school.) Students should still reduce their exposure to other people outside of school during these second five days.
“If we’re going to reduce the risk that an infected person passes this to somebody else, then we really need them to be wearing a mask consistently,” said Jaben. “It needs to be a mask they are wearing at all times, at home and at school, it needs to be a proper mask, and probably more important than even the type of mask, is that it is being worn appropriately, which means no gaps.”
If however, a person tests positive on day six, they will need to be isolated for five more days.
The CDC is recommending a rapid antigen test on day six instead of a PCR test because of the amount of viral load each test detects. The thought is that as the level of the virus comes down, if it is below the threshold that can be detected by an antigen test, it’s low enough not to be contagious. A negative rapid antigen test doesn’t mean a person doesn’t still have a viral load, but it does mean they may be less contagious. PCR tests detect any amount of virus at all, which could force people to stay isolated longer, even when they have a small viral load but aren’t contagious.
If a student (or teacher) is exposed to COVID-19 — within six feet of someone who tests positive for more than 15 minutes without proper masking — isolation and testing will depend on vaccination status. If the student is up to date with vaccinations or has had a documented positive case themselves within the last 90 days, this person does not need to be isolated, but should follow the consistent masking policy for the next five days. If a person is not vaccinated, they will need to be isolated for the first five days after exposure and get a rapid antigen test on day six to determine next steps.
“I think to make this work well, it really requires people to honor the whole package of what’s here, not just pick and choose,” said Jaben.
Haywood County has set up a free testing site, open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Wilson’s Children’s Complex at Lake Junaluska. Both rapid and PCR tests are available.
Board member Jimmy Rogers noted that this system would not only help students and teachers get back to school faster, it would also help parents in getting back to work sooner instead of having to stay home with isolating children.
Rogers made the motion to support the new 5+5 COVID Guidance presented by the Haywood County Health Department. The motion passed; board member David Burnette cast the only dissenting vote.