With schools starting back for the fall semester this week, the Buena Vista school board received an update from local healthcare providers about the protocols the medical community would be observing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This core group has been faithful to our district all throughout this summer by meeting every Tuesday night and listening to me dump out all of the concerns I had earlier in the summer,” superintendent Lisa Yates said as she introduced Andrea Carlstrom, the director of Chaffee County Public Health; Tom White and Craig Otteni, physicians at Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center’s Buena Vista clinic; and Lisa Zwerdlinger, a physician at Rocky Mountain Family Practice in Leadville.

“We’re bringing in increased rapid testing, we’ve hired a COVID team who will be here 7 days a week” Carlstrom said. “We’re looking at what we now lovingly call the ‘Four Ts:’ Transmission, Treatment, Testing and Tracing.”

“When you break it up into those four parts, you find that under each of those parts there are basic principles that underlie their success,” White said. “I think an important point to be made is that none of us believe that embarking on something like having school during a pandemic is going to be risk-free. It’s not tenable to design a model that would prevent the transmission of the disease, but it’s not ethical or moral to do nothing about the transmission of the disease. So somewhere a middle ground has to be hit that’s applicable and stands a chance of success … I think there’s some advantages we might enjoy here by virtue of our geography, and hopefully by the close nature of our community.”

White said that the Buena Vista Health Center clinic’s benefit to the district would be to allow students and teachers who believe they might be sick to be rapidly tested, and acknowledged that more common illnesses with similar symptoms could make diagnosis more difficult. White also said that the hospital had ordered testing equipment that he anticipated would arrive within a few weeks.

“We’re prepared to be open Monday through Friday from approximately 8  a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and have someone there to see who needs to be seen,” White said. “It’s important to note that every kid who comes in and presents as sick is not going to be black and white. It’s not an open and shut case. It’s hard for us to tell sometimes when we look at a sick kid and ask ‘is this the common cold, is this strep throat, is this influenza, is this COVID? Or is this a co-infection? Is this the virus and strep throat?”

So far, nearly all of Chaffee County’s positive COVID cases have been found in self-contained communities – mainly the Buena Vista Correctional Complex in Buena Vista and Columbine Manor in Salida.

Zwerdlinger urged “risk mitigation” through regularly washing hands and wearing face coverings “the most important thing is that we not have an infection in your schools, because then there’s a cascading effect that could occur after that.

“The way I look at it, it’s a lot like what we did in the 1980s when HIV came in,” Zwedlinger said. “What we learned over time was that if we did this thing called universal precaution. Back in the 1980s, we used to draw blood without gloves. We used to talk to patients without masks. We did all these things that exposed us to infection. And what we learned is that you can’t know who’s positive. So you treat it like everybody is. I think that’s where we are right now. COVID is a Coronavirus. It’s the common cold virus.”

“If I can say anything out loud 100 times over, it’s ‘cover your faces,’” Zwerdlinger said.

White said that, while it’s true that the rate that young people become ill from infection by the novel Coronavirus, as well as the severity of those illnesses, tend to be lower than in older populations, “The thing that gets missed a lot, because you hear this out there: ‘Kids don’t get it, kids don’t get infected’ … the part that people miss is that although a kid, or even an adult, may be an asymptomatic carrier, they’re still a carrier.”

That means that parents should err on the side of caution if their child has a runny nose, even if it may just be the common cold.

“As much as no one wants their kids to be sent home, now more than ever before, to be out of work for four days, that could be the reality of this school year,” Otteni said. ‘The alternative is likely an outbreak in the school and the school shutting down for a specific amount of time … I would rather a kid get sent home because a nurse was more cautious than everyone thinks they should have been, and spare the opposite: ‘they told me it was allergies, so I let them stay in school and it turned out that kid was COVID positive.’”

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