TUCSON, Ariz. — Vail Unified School District is crediting a COVID-19 team created by the district over the summer with acting quickly to close a school and prevent infections from spreading.
The district decided to close Esmond Station K-8 over Thanksgiving weekend after two staff members tested positive for COVID.
In a letter to parents, the district stated that contact tracing efforts found those staff members were in contact with other students and staff on campus.
Now, Esmond Station will remain closed for two weeks, and all students and staff will move to remote learning.
“We don’t know if there is spread yet and we probably won’t know for a couple more days,” said Vail district spokesperson Darcy Mentone.
Ally Armenta leads the district's COVID response team. It's made up of about 30 total members; seven at the district level and one at each of their 23 schools. Each of those members works to keep up with Pima County and CDC guidelines on top of their normal duties.
The team also answers questions from staff and families and conducts contact tracing when a case pops up at a school, like Esmond Station.
“Because of this contact tracing process we were able to get this done really rapidly and prevent any additional spread that may have occurred if we had to wait," Mentone said.
Mentone said the COVID team at Vail allowed the district to close the school before Pima County even recommended it.
"The Health Department does not typically begin their contact tracing until there’s a positive diagnosis,” said COVID team leader Ally Armenta.
"If we would have waited until Pima County got done with their contact tracing and waited for that process go through, we probably wouldn’t even be closed down yet," Mentone Added. "So, we're doing everything we can to keep our staff and families safe."
The process starts as soon as someone develops COVID-like symptoms, even if it's just the cold or flu. The number of cases district-wide is about double what they expected, but the district reports most of those cases did not originate at the school.
Pima County Heath Department statistics show that only 5 percent of total COVID transmission is the result of campus exposure. 95 percent of cases start in the household or through social activities and athletics.
Cienga High School crunched its case numbers and found the school spread is less than two percent.
Part of contact tracing is finding out who an infected person had "close contact" with.
Health guidelines define “close contact” as under 6 feet apart for 15 minutes or more.
That’s when the real challenge starts for the COVID team. It’s hard to get exact numbers on who’s potentially exposed.
“So when you’re doing the contact tracing you’re asking the person that’s positive 'Okay, who have you been around for 15 minutes?' and they never have like a perfect list," Mentone said. "They’re like I think I was around so and so, but that might have been for four, five minutes.”
When staff and students are identified 10 days of isolation begins. If they test negative, they can return to campus sooner.
"If they don’t take the test, it’s then a mandatory 2-weeks," Armenta said.
The Esmond Station campus is closed until December 14 because too many potentially exposed staff had to go into isolation.
The district says the COVID team will work through the school year, but funding will be needed if this level of safety measures continues a second year.