TASB Risk Management Fund
INSIDERM

Why You Shouldn’t Shelve COVID-19 Safety Basics

March 08, 2021 Dr. Brian Buck

Construction worker holding a clipboard and wearing a hard hat, safety vest, gloves, and respiratory protection

It seems staff and students at Woodgate Intermediate School in Waco are a few steps ahead of experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency recently reported that based on its studies, schools are safe for in-person learning if they put safeguards in place. Administrators at Woodgate, part of Fund member Midway ISD, were not surprised.

Woodgate has achieved a 0.38 percent positivity rate compared with the county’s 12 percent rate. Because of the school’s success at containing the virus, parents are largely comfortable sending their kids to campus. The percentage of students who walk through Woodgate’s doors every morning had doubled from 40 percent in August to 85 percent in January.

What about COVID-19 vaccines?

To be fair to the CDC, Woodgate’s pandemic-fighting formula incorporates the agency’s longstanding preventative measures. One year into the pandemic, however, some of your staff and students might have lost their enthusiasm for wearing masks and keeping their distance. Others might reason the release of three COVID-19 vaccines renders the basics irrelevant.

Vaccines offer the best long-term solution for reducing transmission risk and preventing severe disease and death. The more people who get vaccinated, the closer we move to herd immunity. In broad strokes, herd immunity means enough people are immune to a disease that it spreads more slowly or stops spreading entirely.

In the meantime, remember:

  • Herd immunity is a long way off. Scientists suspect about 75 percent of the population needs to be resistant before herd immunity kicks in, transmission plummets, and pandemic restrictions loosen.
  • To prevent variants, the global population needs to be vaccinated.
  • Vaccines protect you from getting severe disease. You can still be exposed to someone with the virus, carry it, and transmit it to others.
  • Vaccines that call for two doses deliver maximum protection about two weeks after the second dose. You remain vulnerable until then.

Prioritize the basics

Health officials have produced no shortage of numbers that put the pandemic into perspective. As of early March, for example, Texas public schools had recorded about 190,000 of the state's 2.3 million COVID-19 cases. Approximately 5 million Texans had received one vaccine dose, and 2.4 million were fully vaccinated.

Another number, this one produced by a recent Journal of the American Medical Association study, makes a strong case for prioritizing basic preventative measures. The study found people who have no symptoms account for 59 percent of COVID-19 transmissions. That is up from about 44 percent last fall.

Improve ventilation

Last year, a personal trainer exposed 50 people to COVID-19. Nobody got sick. The gym’s owner credits her ventilation strategy for protecting members.

When someone who has COVID-19 talks, coughs, breathes, or sneezes, they send virus particles into the air. Without enough fresh, clean air coming in, those particles linger and build up. Improving ventilation and boosting indoor air quality helps cut the number of virus particles and control the transmission risk.

The CDC and American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHREA) offer ventilation guidance. In addition to implementing HVAC best practices such as investing in quality air filters, ASHREA recommends schools consider investing in ultraviolet germicidal irradiation.

Schools should also remember:

  • Safety comes first. Opening windows and doors could compromise security. For tips on balancing school security and public health, read this Q&A with Round Rock ISD Police Chief Jeffrey Yarbrough.
  • A government study last summer found more than two of every five U.S. districts need to update or replace the HVAC systems in at least half their schools. You might be able to use CARES Act funds to upgrade facility HVAC systems and bus ventilation systems. If you need help identifying a vendor, contact your TASB Facility Services consultant.

Practice social distancing

New CDC guidance allows most students to be seated three feet apart in the classroom setting. The new guidelines still ask for six feet separation between adults and children, in auditoriums and other common areas, and when masks are off for eating and dining periods.

For details, visit the CDC website and scroll down to the "Modified layouts" subhead.

Students can be especially vulnerable in cafeterias, where quarters are close and masks are removed. Copenhagen International School tackled the problem by serving individually packaged lunches in classrooms. Closer to home, our friends at Woodgate expanded the cafeteria to include the stage and surrounding hallways. One-way traffic and a no-locker policy also help ensure students maintain distance.

Wear a mask

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recently said best practices could call for masks into 2022, at minimum. Though the statewide mask mandate is no longer in force, the Texas Education Association confirmed school districts can still “full authority to determine their local mask policy.”

With limited exceptions, anyone over the age of two and in public settings, outside the home, and at work should wear a mask. Do not buy into the myth that masks weaken the body’s ability to fight illness. In fact, they provide an extra layer of protection for the immune system.

Use N95s sparingly. Before using an N95 mask, you must get a medical evaluation, a fit test, and training on how to conduct a seal check and use the mask properly. The health care community has faced a critical shortage of N95 masks throughout the pandemic. Avoid using one unless you are a school nurse, you are sick or caring for someone who has COVID-19, or you have a valid on-the-job need.

Be careful with alternatives. The shortage of N95 masks created a market for other types of masks and face protection. Some control the virus’ spread better than others.

  • If you use a KN95 mask, choose the medical-grade version for the best protection. The cheaper, industrial-grade model has shown varying effectiveness during tests. Getting a good seal between the mask and the user’s face can also be difficult.
  • Do not use bandanas, neck gaiters, or masks that have one-way valves or vents, which allow an infected person to expel respiratory droplets.
  • Avoid using face shields as a substitute for face coverings whenever possible.

New Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance says masks should fit tighter or be doubled up to protect against COVID-10 variants.

Provide sanitary learning environments

COVID-19 primarily spreads through close contact with an infected person. The virus can live up to nine hours on human skin, however, and up to 28 days on glass, steel, and vinyl surfaces.

Schools should continue to:

  • Safely clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs, desks, and pencil sharpeners.
  • Limit students’ exposure to powerful chemicals by cleaning and disinfecting before school, between classes, or after school when possible.
  • Promote hand hygiene. Everyone should wash their hands regularly with soap for at least 20 seconds. If that is not possible, use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Encourage everyone to stay home when they are sick and cough into their elbow.

Access free resources

The Fund’s online training vendor provides complimentary access to COVID-19 safety videos, including a video that teaches proper cloth mask use. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides a poster that shows how to wear a respirator. For general information about respirators, visit the CDC website. Fund members who have questions about masks, COVID-19, and other safety issues can contact your risk solutions consultant.

Dr. Brian Buck serves as TASB Medical Director in the Workers’ Compensation division, providing medical expertise to support claims decisions.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in June 2020 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Tagged: coronavirus, COVID-19, "workplace safety"