During the last schoolyear in Flagler every time a student or teacher was determined to be a “close contact” with someone who came down with Covid had to quarantine for 10 days. With school set to reopen Tuesday, the Flagler County Health Department and Flagler County schools had reached an arrangement that would have avoided that for students and staffers exposed to Covid, but showing no symptoms, thanks to a rapid-test regimen. As long as the test showed the close contacts to be negative, they could keep attending or teaching school.
That approach was upended Friday when the State Department of Health issued an emergency rule. The rule is intended to address masking in school. It gives parents or guardians the authority to “opt out” their child from wearing masks, if they choose. But the rule went further, setting out minimum quarantining requirements whether or not rapid testing is used locally.
While a complete prevention of quarantining will not be possible, the emergency rule still makes room for a quicker return to school after quarantining than was the case last year. And it makes clear yet another advantage for the vaccinated: for those who have been determined to have had close contacts with a covid patient but show no symptoms, and are vaccinated, no quarantining applies.
Bob Snyder, who heads the Flagler County Health Department, studied the new rule and has been in consultation with his staff and the school district. This morning, he set out the updated protocols in accordance with that new rule.
The rule does change the way people who test positive for Covid must quarantine. Those who do, whether they are vaccinated or not, must still quarantine for 10 days (down from 14 in the earlier part of the pandemic). An individual may go back to normal activities and contacts “if 10 days have passed since your first symptoms appeared and you are 24-hour free of fever, without taking fever-reduction medication. So that hasn’t changed,” Snyder said.
“What has changed now is if you are a bit exposed, you’re considered to be a close contact, in the presence of a confirmed case for 15 minutes or more where social distancing could not be practiced. That is where you are a close contact. And so for the asymptomatic close contact, now what happens is you are–per the rule–to quarantine for four days. And if you’re still asymptomatic, by day seven, and you’ve tested negative for Covid, you can return to school, return to teach, return to your work within the school district.”
The department’s rapid-testing can cut that down to four days instead of seven, for public school students and employees: On Day 4, close contacts may go to oen of the Health Department’s two testing locations, get a rapid test, and if it’s negative, they may then return to school without waiting until Day 7, as long as they agree to also return on Day 6 for another test. That’s as long as an individual shows no symptoms of illness.
The two testing locations are at 120 Airport Road (on the second floor of the three-story building across from Flagler Palm Coast High School) or at 301 Dr. Carter Boulevard in Bunnell, between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. weeknights.
In sum, Snyder said, if you’re unvaccinated, “you’ve got to quarantine regardless if you’re a close contact and you’re asymptomatic for at least four days, but you can return to school Day 5 and 6 and seven thereafter, if you continue to have a negative diagnostic test, which in our case here is the Abbott rapid test that we will perform.” The vaccinated and asymptomatic get an automatic return-to-school card, no quarantining necessary.
One other key change in the rule that is beneficial to some: those who have tested positive for Covid in the previous 90 days and have recovered are considered as good as vaccinated. Even if they are deemed close contacts within that 90-day period, they can skip the quarantine period as long as they show no symptoms of a recurrence.
“You’re vaccinated, or if you tested positive within that 90 day period,” Snyder said, “the assumption is is that you are immune because you were a case. And then of course the vaccination provides extra protection for individuals. So, you’re good to go.”
But for a person to be considered vaccinated, both shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine would have had to be administered. If the person only got one shot, the quarantining regimen still kicks in.
The emergency rule’s protocols will be in effect in Flagler County schools regarding teachers, students and staff–not just students.
The two testing locations begin operating on Tuesday. They are open to all residents, not just to students and staffers from Flagler schools. The free rapid testing will be available to anyone, and PCR testing will be conducted for those who request it, though it takes about two days for those results to return. Parents, guardians and family members of school students or staffers may participate or seek tests the same way–and apply the same less restrictive quarantining regimen to themselves.
“We’re not going to turn anyone away who, and if we have to extend hours to meet demand, we will,” Snyder said.
The same approach will apply to the county’s seven private schools and the charter school (Imagine at Town Center). Those eight schools each have a rapid testing stating on campus. The set-up also allows students and staffers who may be deemed close contacts to–four days past the required quarantining–be tested every other day, and stay in school as long as the tests are negative. The Health Department offered that same approach to the school district and its nine traditional public schools, but the district declined.
The Health Department has devised the following quick-reference scenarios for what to do in case of exposure, and what kind of test to get:
Scenario 1: A positive rapid test with a person having symptoms does not require a PCR test. The person must immediately quarantine for up to 10 days, until symptoms disappear.
Scenario 2: A symptomatic person with a negative rapid test requires to have the rapid test confirmed by a PCR test.
Scenario 3: An asymptomatic person with a negative rapid test: No confirmation needed. The person has the green light to return to school.
Scenario 4: Asymptomatic person with a positive rapid test should get confirmation with a PCR test, and quarantine meanwhile.