COVID-19 FAQ: How to Keep Schools Open

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Many months have passed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. However, there are still unknowns surrounding COVID-19 and what its effect will be moving forward. Tri-County Health Care, Wadena-Deer Creek Schools and Sourcewell hosted a community town hall to answer questions from the public. Topics addressed included how influenza differs from COVID-19 and how to keep schools open this year.

Tri-County Health Care COVID-19 Coronavirus Schools Reopening Germs Hand Hygiene Masks

What are the differences between COVID-19 and influenza?

Ben Hess, M.D.: The main symptoms of COVID-19 and influenza are similar. Nobody can look at a patient and tell if they have one or the other. That is why we must do testing to sort through it and find an answer. We have quite a few treatments that are effective for the flu.

The main difference is that COVID-19 is more dangerous than the flu. If you look at the statistics, the flu kills around 30,000 Americans every year. We have already lost 180,000 to COVID-19.

How can people prepare for the flu season? Will this flu season be different this year?

Dr. Hess: Both the flu and COVID-19 are spread through droplets. That means the measures people are taking to protect themselves from COVID-19 will be effective at limiting the spread of the flu. These mitigation efforts include social distancing, wearing a mask and practicing good hand hygiene.

Another way to prepare is to get the annual flu shot. It will be important because if a patient is showing symptoms and has had the flu vaccination, it will be easier for the provider to determine the illness. If a patient presents with a fever, muscle aches, runny nose and sore throat and have had a flu shot, the suspicion that it’s COVID-19 is much higher.

In a typical year, I recommend getting the flu shot in October or November for this region. However, with COVID-19 active in the community, it’s more important to get it sooner.

What will school look like this year?

Wadena-Deer Creek School District Superintendent Lee Westrum: We plan to keep the schools open and students in the classroom, but we know we will likely have to shift between the three learning formats described below, depending on the COVID-19 data in our community. We’re also offering distance learning as an option for any family who wishes to choose a more consistent schedule as part of a full-time, at-home learning model.

When students are in school, we will follow the Minnesota Department of Health guidelines to mitigate risks associated with the spread of COVID-19. Our safety protocols include:

  • Physical distancing of individuals in classrooms and common areas, and visual reminders for physical distancing
  • Face coverings for all staff and students in our buildings
  • Handwashing with soap and/or hand sanitizer in each classroom
  • Limited sharing of supplies.
  • Increased daily and weekly enhanced cleaning and disinfecting
  • Increased circulation of outside air into buildings due to our advanced HVAC system

What happens to the learning model if there is a surge of COVID-19 cases in the area?

Lee Westrum: The three learning models in our safe learning plan include in-person learning, hybrid learning and distance learning. These three learning formats may shift depending on COVID-19 data in our community. The state of Minnesota has put together a system to help guide schools about what learning model to use. This system is based on the number of positive COVID-19 tests per 10,000 people in the county over a two-week period. Our district plans to discuss shifting models at these positive case levels:

  • 10 positive cases per 10,000: Students in grades 7-12 would shift to hybrid learning. Elementary students would remain in school.
  • 20 positive cases per 10,000: All students shift to hybrid learning.
  • 30 positive cases per 10,000: Students in grades 7-12 shift to distance learning. Elementary remains with hybrid learning.
  • 50 positive cases: All students shift to distance learning.

How can the community help keep our schools open with in-person learning this year?

Lee Westrum: The main factor in keeping our students in school is by keeping our community COVID-19 infection rates low. We all agree we want our kids in school. It’s important for our parents and community members to be partners with the school on this. That means committing to mitigation efforts at home and in the community. By making this commitment, it will allow us to keep our infection rates low and help us achieve our goal of providing an excellent education while maintaining a safe environment for everyone.

Is it still important to flatten the curve?

Joel Beiswenger, President and CEO: The original concept of flattening the curve was to make sure health care systems didn’t get overrun with the virus. The efforts allowed time for training on how best to care for patients and to acquire personal protective equipment. Now, it’s important to flatten the curve to manage community spread and allow our schools to maintain in-person learning. It’s the same concept with a different perspective on it.

Dr. Hess: When you’re dealing with a virus like this, it has the potential for exponential growth. It only takes a few cases to turn into hundreds or thousands. We’re always flattening the curve, but now we’re focused on doing it to avoid a large-scale shutdown. It’s how we keep our schools and businesses open this year.

Tri-County Health Care COVID-19 Coronavirus Hand Hygiene Schools Reopening Social Distancing Face Masks


COVID-19: Health Care Workers Answer the Call

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By Susan Marco, Provider Recruitment

My grandmother Ethel was a nurse in Honolulu/Pearl Harbor during World War II. She was sent to nursing school by her Illinois farm family because they thought she would be an old maid based on her heavy-set frame and not being quite the beauty, her sisters were.

The family must have been shocked when little, Ethel Mae, returned from nursing school in Chicago with a tiny waist, full bosom, and her hair styled. It was then that she told her family that she and some of her single friends had taken positions in the exotic-not an official state-tropical oasis known as Hawaii. It was early 1941.

My grandmother was with her friends hiking the lush, dense Hawaiian island mountains on December 7, 1941, because it was a Sunday and they had to go back to work the next day, which happened to be her birthday.

Front Entrance with coronavirus screening tentsThat Sunday, a date that will live in infamy, was a simple Illinois farm girl’s day of fun celebrating an early 23rd birthday and then, everything changed. She was a nurse; and she was called into action.

I think now about my high school senior son, Jack.  He is at home. No prom, no senior slide, no senior anything. I don’t know that he has fully grasped what all of this means; to be frank, I don’t think I have either. Do we have a graduation party? Will I even be able to get the paper plates, plastic forks, napkins to even have a party? Will I be able to get the food? I went to Aldi one day when all of the COVID-19 talk began, and I reached for a tomato out of a flat of tomatoes (probably a flat of 20-25). Just as I was reaching for it, a woman picked up the whole flat and took it.

There were no eggs. There was one package of shredded cheese left. They had a limit on cans of beans.  I stood in the store as if I pushed the Health care workers in PPE set up in the coronavirus screening tentpause button on my television and looked around. What was I missing? Should I be doing this? Did I not get some memo or pay attention closely enough?

I go to work every day just as all health care employees do. I am not an RN like my grandmother; I am not on the essential front line of this virus. I work in an office in the old hospital building where I continue on — continue to work, continue to get up every morning and go to bed every night and continue to show up.

But here is the heart of it all — I show up and do what I can. I take the information that is given to me and I work with it. I go home at night and try to fall asleep and not let the fear and anxiety take over. I get up in the morning, get my cup of coffee and proceed forward. I must trust that the decision makers are making good decisions. I must trust that my co-working providers and nurses have a plan and have the stamina to continue.

We can’t control this — this, being life. We can’t control how the journey switches, changes or alters. We could be hiking one day and be in triage tents in Pearl Harbor the next. We could be an 18-year-old that thinks they have the world by the tail, only to be told there is no end of the senior year, no prom, no senior glory. Yet, the thing is, we are all on this journey together and we need to show up for it.  We can’t control it but we can be present for it. We can take ownership in our part. Perhaps even someday, tell our grandchildren about the event that colored our life’s journey.

About the Author: Susan Marco lives with her husband, Troy, and has two children, Kenzie (21) and Jack (18). Susan enjoys spending time with her family and enjoys reading and writing. Susan also has her own personal blog where she writes about her various experiences as well as tackles the topic of Alzheimer’s, which she knows first-hand in caring for her mother.