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Charlottesville and Albemarle County public schools could not provide details when asked who would be notified in the school system when a student, teacher or staff member is tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

If the schools opt for an in-person reopening, Thomas Jefferson Health District officials plan to only notify those who have spent more than 15 minutes, known as prolonged contact, within 6 feet, also known as close contact, of a person who was tested positive for COVID-19.

When asked who would be notified when someone at a school tested positive for COVID, both Charlottesville City Schools and Albemarle County Public Schools said they’re still working on their processes. Beth Cheuk, city school spokesperson, said like any other infectious disease, the division will follow protocols established by the Virginia Department of Health. 

Using the department’s guidance, the division currently is developing documents that would lay out the division’s plans, Cheuk said. When asked, neither division provided an estimate as to when their planning documents would be ready.

“These are questions that have been the subject of recent meetings with our human resources department and the local health department ― [the division] should have some answers soon,” said Phil Giaramita, county schools spokesperson. “The health department, which is responsible for contact tracing, will be a key contact for us in determining the best way to handle the situations.”

The school divisions, however,  can choose to inform everyone that there was an exposure, said Ta’Kindra Westbrook, acting district epidemiologist for the Thomas Jefferson Health District. The health department will only contact whoever came in close contact or prolonged contact with the student, teacher or staff member who tested positive for the virus. 

“The health department roles as case investigators would contact those persons that are defined as close contact, because their risk would be greater,” Westbrook explained. “Our determination of who to contact is based on the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] practices for contact tracing. When contact tracing, we speak with those who were within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.”

Once the district tracks down who the person has come into contact with, self-quarantine would then be recommended for 14 days. Those who show symptoms are recommended to visit their primary provider. The cost of the test would be determined depending on who the family visits.  

Thursday morning, the Thomas Jefferson Health District reported 47 new cases, giving it a cumulative total of 1,505 cases. Additionally, there have been 129 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in the district, which is made up of Charlottesville and Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson counties. 

Although  Dr. Taison Bell, an assistant professor of medicine in the divisions of infectious diseases and international health and pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Virginia, said he’s not too familiar with the health department’s way to conduct contact tracing, he said he would imagine that children who were in the classroom with someone who become positive should be part of the contact tracing investigation.

When asked would it be cautious to also contact those who the person who tested positive may have encountered in the hallways, Bell said that first, it’s important to think about the possibility of the transmissibility of the virus.

If someone is in a close space that’s poorly ventilated for a prolonged period of time, then their risk of contracting from someone who’s positive in the room is higher than passing someone in the hallway.  For instance, when a patient or staff member becomes positive at the hospital, not everyone at the hospital is notified. 

The whole hospital wouldn’t be because that’s not helpful, Bell said. But they would notify the unit that the infected person was on or the nurse who was around. 

If there’s one case at the school and health officials decide to notify the entire school, then the school would be on a lockdown, he stressed, and that defeats the purpose of having the school open in the first place. 

“These guiding principles are based on the science of what we know of the virus and what we know of why [it spreads]” he said, explaining that when people pass each other, there’s a low likelihood of the transmission ― specifically if they both wear a mask.

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Billy Jean Louis

Billy Jean Louis joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its education reporter in April 2019 and is a graduate of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jean Louis speaks English, Haitian Creole and French.