Prospects may be dimming for reopening school campuses as previously scheduled for April 6 because the novel coronavirus pandemic hasn’t reached its peak, the Natrona County Health Officer told the school district’s board of trustees on Wednesday.
“So if you want my gut feeling based on the numbers that are going up right now, I can’t see — and this is just one opinion, please, I’m just trying to help — I can’t see us in a month necessarily being able to go back to school,” infectious disease specialist Dr. Mark Dowell told the trustees as they met remotely by teleconference.
Trustee Dave Applegate had asked if there was any data projections that could indicate when it would be safe to reopen the schools.
Dowell responded that it’s easier to project what will happen in large urban areas, but it’s not as easy in a rural area.
“We know it’s causing more and more cases, but we don’t know what that curve looks like yet,” he said.
The number of identified cases is going up in Wyoming, so hypothetically the state reports 20 new cases a day for three days, and then those numbers decline and then there’s only one case over next two weeks, Dowell said.
That looks good, and people then think about opening schools and returning to life before with federal and state guidance, he said.
That would be bad, Dowell said.
“There’s isn’t anybody in the epidemiology world or in infectious diseases that is suggesting that we’re anywhere loosening anything up in the near future,” he said. “That would be disastrous to not follow that curve very carefully and err on the cautious side and then find out that we loosened stuff too soon and we have a lot of bad disease occur.”
The numbers are still rising.
As of Wednesday evening, there have been six cases identified in Natrona County, 49 identified in Wyoming, and in the United States more than 64,000 cases with more than 900 deaths.
Trustees made no decision about reopening the schools, but they said they would continue to monitor the situation. Two weeks ago, the district announced the schools would close on March 16 and reopen on April 6 if the disease was under control.
Dowell doubts that should happen.
Acting to reduce social distancing and opening the schools and other public places too soon could result in the illness roaring back, Dowell said. “I don’t want to see our community get creamed.”
Trustee Kevin Christopherson said he remembered other diseases like the bird flu, and society didn’t shut down because of them. He asked that if shutting down schools for any illness that comes by will be the new normal.
Dowell was blunt in his response: “No.”
The ecological and population conditions from the worldwide influenza 1918-1919 pandemic — an H1N1 virus with an avian origin — have changed significantly during the past century, Dowell said.
“The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States,” according to the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dowell said the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has no comparison to anything since then.
COVID-19 is more aggressive than the H1N1 virus, people now live longer and their immune systems have changed, Dowell said.
“This is highly contagious with absolutely no human protection from this particular virus,” he said. “We all knew it in infectious diseases [studies] that this was going to happen.”
Applegate said this was tough talk, and he urged the other trustees and administrators to be transparent with the students, parents and community.