Wyoming's COVID-19 surge is having an overwhelming effect on state and local contact tracers. Public health officials might not be able to reach everyone that may have been exposed. That could have a major effect on K-12 schools around the state, since it's up to the county and district how they handle it. Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler spoke with Goshen County School District Superintendent Ryan Kramer about how the district has begun contact tracing all of its cases.
Ryan Kramer: We were one of the first positive confirmed cases, as far as schools were starting in the state. We went from three cases, to 10 cases. On November 2, we just had a significant start. We now have 20 active cases occurring in our district. As of last Friday, we had minimal to zero school spread. And that was really comforting in where we're at. Right now, as we've kind of progressed to this week we can't be as confident. There are some questions with some recent positive cases.
Catherine Wheeler: If spread in the schools hasn't been a problem until recently, is it more that students have been getting it out in the community?
RK: We've found in our community they are individuals just not following the recommendations from their health service provider, the clinic, [when] they've gone in and shown signs and symptoms. And they haven't been following the regulations that had been set forth for one to really stop the spread. We've had some situations where we found through our contact tracing and information that has been shared with from county health in regards to exposures and our collaboration with them where we've had some students returning [to school] well before they should return in being involved in the quarantine situation. We found prior to this week that, unequivocally, the mitigation strategies that we were utilizing, our face covering requirements, our social distancing, handwashing, all those things that we know to be effective were having an excellent effect, a great effect, on reducing the spread.
CW: It's been reported by the Torrington Telegram that maintaining staffing has been a big issue. Are there any other challenges that have arisen?
RK: Just the overall mental health of our community members, our staff members, all of those things, because when we're in an environment where families are really concerned and as parents are concerned with, how things are going, how can I make a quarantine situation work? How can I afford this if I don't have proper child care for my children, and I still have to work? We have, fortunately, not seen behavior pieces, but we have seen just challenging engagement pieces and understanding of concepts that we're introducing. And so it has a drastic effect on all of that, in addition to the stress level that many of our employees are facing. I just have to commend my nurses and their work as they've taken on, as the state has said we weren't able to keep up with this contact tracing. Our nurses have said, 'You know what, we're going to take this on along with our school administrators.'
CW: How has that transition been?
RK: We had a system in place. We're fortunate in having that first positive case, where from that moment on, we took steps to say, Okay, we have very, very clear seating charts, we have very clear practice plans that show exactly who was in contact with each person. And so when we would get the call, we would be able to put into action very quickly. These are all the close contacts that need to be contacted immediately. These are the close contacts that shouldn't be returning to school. We tried to get out ahead of that because it wasn't always possible for students to be contacted by state health officials and not come to school that next day. So we took it upon ourselves, in contacting those students or a staff member saying, 'you will most likely be getting a call from contact tracers at the state level. And we will recommend that you not come to school tomorrow, because we're worried that you may expose others.' And so we were well practicing prior to even October in this. And so as soon as this tip, we have been instituted through our nurses and our administrators, kind of our own system, which was in cooperation with our county health officials, indicating guidance on quarantine, for anybody that we felt was a close contact with any of our positive cases that occurred at school we knew about and were notified at school.
CW: And so has the workload been difficult?
RK: Its taken from my nurses an unbelievable amount of time. And they are already stressed because of the amount of normal situations they have around this and their normal work. This has just compounded that, and I have nurses working well into the evenings, working with administrators following as soon as we have a positive case, it's almost like a trigger or an alarm goes off to them. They've become so proficient at that and done so well, that I just can't commend them enough for the work they're doing. And what that allowed us to do in the schools then be confident in still offering a dependable environment here, we're working face to face. Because if we weren't doing that, I think most of our ability to be confident that we're providing a safe environment would be not as high as it is right now.