By Michael Ainscough, MD, MPH
This is probably the most important article I have written in this series. Two weeks ago I wrote that Our Schools Need Our Support. In just the last two weeks of July, the total number of COVID cases in Washington County more than doubled! The virus is closer now. With schools starting next week, the coming days are a critical juncture.
If we want to keep schools open, we need everyone to take this seriously. Don’t say, “It’s not my problem; it doesn’t affect me; there’s nothing I can do.” Those are not true. You can help your schools and your community.
A higher level of COVID in our community will seep into our schools. To keep schools open, we need to keep the community level as low as possible. We need everyone working on a common goal. We need a critical mass of people who care. Enough people have done enough things right to keep our community case numbers low so far. The whole community has benefited from their efforts. That is the essence of public health.
It is imperative for adults and teens to avoid exposures (large crowds, travel to hot spots). Kids don’t travel. Adults and teens do. If adults can continue to keep COVID out of the community, it won’t get into the schools. It’s that simple.
The last four months we’ve been in training. The real test is coming. We’ve been watch- ing, learning. We’ve seen other cities get sick. We haven’t had much virus in Washington County. That is changing. We had a spike of cases in July. We had only 19 total cases in four months. We had 35 in July alone. That looks like the beginning of an outbreak. We are running out of time to reverse the trend.
A lot has quickly changed. Two weeks ago, with a stable, lower level of virus in the com- munity, I advocated for schools to reopen with students in classes. If case numbers keep increasing, I could no longer say that. The doubling of cases in just two weeks is ominous. It is hard to tell how much more disease it will take before schools may be forced to close. There are two agencies that can shut down schools: the Governor and the County Health Department. If COVID case positivity in Region 4 exceeds 8%, the Governor will close businesses and schools. St. Clair and Madison Counties drive Region 4 case numbers, but we can’t control what happens there. If there is an outbreak of COVID within a school, the Health Department will close the school. We, the adults and teens in the community, have every bit of control over that. If some people are irresponsible, self-serving, or careless, then all students, working parents, and businesses in the whole community suffer.
It only takes a few infections to lose control of the situation. In a respiratory virus epi- demic, with many asymptomatic and minimally symptomatic people, the average positive case infects three to five more people before diagnosis and isolation. Our window of time is closing. A few weeks of rising numbers means game over… too late to go back for a re-do. The virus will continue spreading into rural areas for at least six more months. Like Major League Baseball, our (school) season could end soon if the community doesn’t do a better job of managing the coronavirus. If we don’t get this right the first time, like right now, our lives will be much more difficult and a lot less fun. There will be no school, no high school basketball, no grade school sports. There will be kids at home all winter getting minimal education. Restaurants, bars, and businesses will be closed again. It will be a miserable winter. COVID is not just “bad flu”. Schools and businesses stay open during bad flu years. This is a 100-year event. COVID has already shut down schools and businesses once, and can do it again. We should act with a 100-year response to face this challenge together – as a community.
We can’t just sit back and wait for something to happen. If we do nothing, what will happen won’t be good. Our school teachers, school nurse, bus drivers, janitors, aides, and admin- istrators have prepared for classes and are doing their absolute best to keep our kids safe. Don’t say you can’t help. You can!
We’ve done a good job as individuals. We’ve got to do a better job as a whole community. This will take our collective effort. We need a higher percentage of people to cooperate with public health guidance than vote in the Presidential election. If you are breathing now, we need you to help. Instructions are in bold print.
It’s up to us, as a community, to act. It’s up to YOU.
Keep Our Schools Open by Michael Ainscough
1. Adults and teens – Do not go to areas of high infection (i.e., St. Clair Co., Madison Co., Clinton Co., St. Louis city and county, Sunbelt states). Going there is high risk for exposure to the virus. If you must go for necessities or emergencies, minimize your time there.
2. Parents of school-age chil- dren – If you work in high risk areas, it is absolutely critical to wear masks, social distance, and wash hands. Take a shower and change clothes when you come home before interacting with your children.
3. Adults and teens – Do not go to multi-family large indoor gatherings. Some of your “friends” may have been exposed and give the virus to you. You don’t know where they’ve been.
4. Adults and teens – If out- of-town or non-family friends come to visit, everyone wear masks and social distance.
5. School authorities and organizations need to appeal directly to parents to avoid exposures and minimize risks (see 1,2,3,and4.)
6. Out-of-county delivery drivers must wear masks if they are within 6 feet of you. Tell them to do so. You don’t know where they’ve been.
7. Customers and clerks in shops near I-64 exits must wear masks. You certainly don’t know where interstate travelers have been.
8. Adults and teens – Wear masks or face coverings inside every public business and build- ing, and also outdoors if you can’t keep at least 6 feet away from other people. Social distance. Wash hands frequently.
9. If you are absolutely, positively, unmistakably sure there is no virus within 6 feet of you, only then do you not need to wear a mask. Remember the vi- rus is invisible, odorless, silent, contagious, and occasionally deadly.
10. Share this guidance with other people (by conversations, on social media, at planning meetings).