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After little federal guidance, health director looks locally for answers on reopening schools

After little federal guidance, health director looks locally for answers on reopening schools

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Douglas County’s health director voiced frustration Wednesday about the lack of leadership at the national level in providing guidance about safely reopening schools this fall.

Adi Pour, director of the Douglas County Health Department, said she and other health directors across the state have been working with the Nebraska Education Department to produce some common parameters for reopening based on best practices.

The Health Department is already receiving near-daily reports of cases of COVID-19 among sports teams and other groups that have resumed games, practices and rehearsals.

Such cases could be a “preamble” to what happens when students return to classrooms, Pour said. One difference, she said, is that students in classrooms typically won’t have interactions as close as those in contact sports.

Pour said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has produced some documents on school reopenings, but they’re relatively broad. So on Wednesday, she said, she sent a page of questions to an infectious diseases physician at the University of Nebraska Medical Center seeking more specific guidance, particularly regarding what public health agencies should do when a first case occurs in a classroom.

“We need some answers from our (experts) locally here that we are not getting anywhere else,” Pour told the Douglas County Board of Health.

Pour’s remarks were part of an update to the board on the Health Department’s activities. “All the schools want to know: What does it take to really open schools safely in the middle of August?” she said.

She said the department and others have been working through some details. Every school is different, because every building is different and the occupants are different, largely depending on the ages of the students.

Two members of the Burke High School dance team tested positive earlier this month. Millard West has reported a positive case on its dance team, and Millard North had one on its cheerleading squad. In both cases, school officials worked with the Health Department and informed families.

The department also has tracked cases among three high school sports teams: one each in basketball, baseball and softball.

“It is possible to do it safely, but it does require some work and it does require some sacrifice (from) the teams,” she said in an interview.

But Pour said local health officials had more frequent contact with the CDC during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic. They knew exactly what the recommendations were.

With the current broader recommendations for COVID-19, educators and health departments are drafting their own guidance. They generally agree on big concepts such as regular cleaning and social distancing. But more detailed information is missing. Most advise making such decisions in consultation with the local health department, based on the status of the virus in the community.

That means local staff members have to make some of those very difficult decisions, she said. Pour reported to the board that some members of her staff have not had a day off in months.

“That leadership that would give us some answers ... is not there,” she said.


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Julie Anderson is a medical reporter for The World-Herald. She covers health care and health care trends and developments, including hospitals, research and treatments. Follow her on Twitter @JulieAnderson41. Phone: 402-444-1066.

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