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COVID-19 case numbers keep rising at Upper Valley schools

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/15/2021 9:25:24 PM
Modified: 9/15/2021 9:25:32 PM

CLAREMONT — COVID-19 case counts at Upper Valley schools continue to tick upward as the delta variant makes its way through the Twin States.

Stevens High School officials reported five cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday. Hartford school officials have alerted parents to at least four cases since Thursday. That’s in addition to a handful of other cases at schools on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley that have required roughly 200 students to quarantine in the past week.

In contrast with the Vermont schools’ approach and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the quarantine of close contacts, New Hampshire public health officials do not recommend quarantine for people exposed to a positive case outside of a household setting and instead direct those who have been exposed to self-monitor for symptoms, wear a mask when indoors around others and get tested about five days after exposure.

“COVID is going to be with us for a long time to come,” Beth Daly, chief of the Bureau of Infectious Disease Control at the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, said in a call with school leaders on Wednesday.

The state is moving toward treating COVID-19 like other respiratory illnesses as part of the effort to “keep kids in school,” she said.

New Hampshire public health officials told school leaders in the phone call on Wednesday that they are conducting contact tracing for clusters, which are three or more related cases, and outbreaks, which include two or more clusters. They are not conducting contact tracing for individual cases, but recommend that schools make an effort to determine who has had close contact with a positive case in order to direct those people to self-monitor for symptoms and get tested.

As of Tuesday, there had been 25 clusters, including 146 cases (92% of them children) affecting K-12 schools in New Hampshire so far this school year, Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state epidemiologist, told school leaders on Wednesday’s call.

“This is a remarkable number of clusters to occur in a two-week period,” Chan said.

The number of cases affecting schools underscores the need to implement prevention strategies such as face masks, physical distancing, screening testing, ventilation, hand-washing, staying home when sick, isolation and quarantine and cleaning, he said.

In accordance with DHHS’ recommendations, Patricia Barry, Stevens High’s principal, and Veronica Januszewski, SAU 6’s lead nurse, directed members of the Stevens High community to self-monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 over the 14 days from Sept. 13 to Sept. 26. The students who tested positive are required to isolate for at least 10 days.

Their message went out on Tuesday afternoon, the same day a boys soccer game between Stevens and Lebanon High School was postponed. Barry, reached by phone on Wednesday, declined to comment on whether or not the soccer cancellation and was related to the COVID-19 cases. She directed questions to Superintendent Michael Tempesta, who did not respond to email or voice messages by deadline.

“These students contracted COVID-19 outside of the school environment, thus this does not constitute a cluster situation,” Barry and Januszewski said in their message.

COVID-19 symptoms Barry and Januszewski recommended that people who’ve been exposed should look out for include: a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or more; cough; shortness of breath or difficulty breathing; sore throat; runny nose or nasal congestion; muscle or body aches; fatigue; headache; new loss of taste or smell; nausea or vomiting; and diarrhea.

School officials asked that students stay home from school if they have any of these symptoms even if they’re mild; if they share a household (temporarily or permanently) with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the previous two weeks; or have traveled internationally or on a cruise ship in the past 10 days.

Hartford Superintendent Tom DeBalsi did not respond to an email seeking comment on Hartford’s recent cases on Wednesday.

Hartford schools are requiring unvaccinated close contacts of positive cases to quarantine for up to 14 days, according to messages sent to families. Hartford Memorial Middle School has had two recent COVID-19 cases that appear unrelated, resulting in required quarantine for about 60 people in total, DeBalsi previously told the Valley News.

Due to the high number of cases in Vermont schools, Dan French, Vermont’s secretary of education, and Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of health, announced in a memo on Tuesday that school employees would be taking the lead on contact tracing for COVID-19 cases in schools and at school events until case numbers drop, when schools will have the option of having the Department of Health do tracing.

“The purpose of these strategies is to help strike an operational balance between public health and educational goals: We want to keep students safe from COVID-19 but also maximize their ability to attend school,” the memo said.

Claremont School Board Chairman Frank Sprague, reached by phone on Wednesday, hadn’t yet heard about the cases affecting Claremont schools, but he was not shocked.

“I’m surprised everyone doesn’t have it (given the) way everything has broken down,” said Sprague, a former Stevens High principal, of the way that many COVID-19 precautions have been lifted. Claremont schools are requiring employees and students to wear masks indoors but do not require parents to wear them when entering school buildings, Sprague said.

Just 44% of Claremont residents and 15% of those between 12 and 19 have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The city had 55 active cases on Wednesday, the most on the New Hampshire side of the Upper Valley.

On Wednesday, Sprague, who is 68 and fully vaccinated, was preparing to exit isolation later this week after first falling ill with what turned out to be COVID-19 on Sept. 3.

“We’ve all kind of let our guard down,” he said. Because a bowling teammate fell ill at about the same time, Sprague said he thinks he picked up the virus at the bowling alley.

Sprague spent about a week with a fever hovering between 102 and 103 degrees but is now feeling better and his sense of smell is returning.

“It’s scary,” he said. “I hate to think what it would be like if you didn’t get the vaccine.”

His wife and 26-year-old daughter, who lives with them, have also tested positive, he said. They also have been vaccinated and are isolating at home.

“This is real,” Sprague said. “It’s out there, and you can catch it. It might not be fun when you do.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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