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.
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.