PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Multnomah County health officials offered two reasons behind the recent quarantine of students and staff at the state’s second-largest high school — but neither were public health issues.
Even though only eight COVID-19 cases occurred at Reynolds High School, about 1,000 students and staff were told to quarantine and transition entirely to distance learning.
According to county health leaders, the school didn’t have enough staff to suddenly teach in person and online — leading to the decision to hold classes remotely.
Since the school was unable to clearly identify which students were in close contact with the original four students who tested positive, it would have meant the district would have had to quickly call nearly 3,000 families to inform them of potential exposure, which, officials said, was not possible.
“There is not an outbreak at Reynolds (High School),” said Dr. Jennifer Vines, Multnomah County health officer. “That was an administrative operational decision. The way we are so pressed for staff in public health and the schools, that may be the more likely scenario.”
Students do not have to quarantine if they are vaccinated, but not all schools have a way for students to report their vaccination status directly.
The county said RHS and many others are working to avoid similar closures in the future — by actions like enforcing seating charts to keep track of proximity of students — but in high schools, students intermingle while going to different classes, in hallways and at lunch.
Exposures in Multnomah County since students returned
In a briefing to county commissioners Tuesday morning about COVID-19 trends, county health officials said there have been about 100 exposures in public and private K-12 schools in the county since Sept. 1.
Officials said there is little evidence to suggest school activities are to blame for the spread of COVID-19. Instead, buses may be a place where the virus is allowed to infect more easily as seating charts may not be maintained there, according to county health officials.
Lisa Ferguson, communicable disease services manager for the Multnomah County Health Department, said transportation was just one key area the county is focusing on with schools.
Along with buses, Ferguson said the county’s team of public health professionals sent recommendations to schools on other critical areas: masking, school mealtimes, athletics, and afterschool programs.
“We’re at another pivot point,” said Jessica Guernsey, Multnomah County public health director, on the return of students to school along with a potential vaccine approval for children.
She said the county will do well following two key practices.
“The vaccines can save your life,” Guernsey said. “And we need to continue to mask … That combination approach is really what’s going to carry us through this.”
On the topic of vaccines, Vines said that although breakthrough cases are rising in percentages of total COVID-19 cases, that is expected.
“As we get more and more people vaccinated, more and more of our cases will be vaccine breakthrough,” Vines said. “Good news is: if you’re vaccinated, you’re half as likely to be hospitalized.”
Vines added that based on data the county is seeing suggests those who are vaccinated don’t have too much cause for concern.
“When we talk about waning immunity, that means ‘is your body forgetting what the COVID virus looks like,’ and ‘is it forgetting how to generate that full immune response,'” she said. “The answer is largely ‘no.’”
Health officials instead credited the rising number of breakthrough cases to the infectivity of the Delta variant.
Cases of COVID-19 have dipped slightly since record-shattering case counts a few weeks ago. As of Monday, there are 968 people are hospitalized due to the virus, with 278 in ICU beds. There are 63 available adult ICU beds out of 651 total (10% availability) and 330 available adult non-ICU beds out of 4,246 (8% availability).
So far in Oregon, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 3594 people. There have been three pediatric deaths.