COVID-19 cases are rising across the North Olympic Peninsula with enough cases reported in area schools to prompt district officials to encourage students and staff to wear masks while indoors.
Jefferson County reported a case rate of 584 per 100,000 population on Tuesday, while Clallam County’s rate as of Wednesday was 483 per 100,000. Both counties are in the state’s high-risk category for COVID-19.
“We are seeing (clusters of) classroom transmission now because the students typically are not wearing masks, so we are seeing clusters of three or four kids who sat near each other in a class testing positive, and that’s something we’re seeing in districts across the county,” said Dr. Allison Berry, public health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties.
The Port Townsend School District reported that, since April 27, 25 students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19, with 14 of those cases found in clusters at Blue Heron Middle School.
Chimacum also has seen some clusters of positive cases in its classrooms, particularly among its secondary students, according to Superintendent Scott Mauk.
In both of those Jefferson County districts, authorities mandate indoor masking for one week when a cluster is discovered.
“When we have a cluster in a classroom, we mandate indoor masking for one week to prevent further transmission,” said Port Townsend Superintendent Linda Rosenbury. “During this time of high community COVID activity, masking is strongly recommended for all students.”
Rosenbury also said some student activities have been moved outdoors. The activities include school meals and music programs — basically anything that requires a student to take off their mask.
On Wednesday, the Sequim School District sent out a letter along with some home antigen tests to the families of two particular classes at Sequim Middle School, said Sonja Bittner, district nurse.
According to the Sequim School District COVID-19 dashboard (https://www.sequimschools.org), the district has had a total of 29 students test positive for COVID-19, though in those cases none of the students had been exposed to the virus at school.
The majority of the cases have been found in the Sequim Middle School and high school, with eight cases in each.
“I will tell you that the greatest increase since Monday has been in our SMS population,” Bittner said.
“Today, out of an abundance of caution, we are sending home a parent notification letter of our concern and a supply of Rapid Antigen COVID Tests for the families of two individual classes at SMS (not two grade levels). The (county) health department asked that we encourage the families of those two classes to test, and it was recommended that they encourage their students to mask,” she added.
Sequim School District is also partnering with the state Department of Health in offering free COVID-19 testing to families that are symptomatic or may have been exposed to COVID-19.
On Tuesday, parents of Port Angeles High School students were notified by Principal Tanner Zahrt that 19 students and staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 within the past week.
He strongly encouraged all students and staff members to wear face masks indoors until at least May 20 to help control the spread of the virus.
“In partnership with Clallam County Public Health, we strongly recommend that all Port Angeles High School students and staff wear face masks while indoors through next Friday (5/20/22). At this time, masking is not a requirement, but this is our next step to combat the increased cases and risk of exposure for students and staff members … Our local health official retains jurisdiction to implement additional mitigation practices to lessen the impact of disease in school buildings,” Zahrt said in the letter emailed to parents.
Carmen Geyer, Port Angeles School District spokesperson, said other schools in the district have reported cases of the virus, but not as many as at the high school.
On Wednesday, she said the masking recommendation is only for PAHS students and staff.
Berry said authorities have no evidence cases were transmitted within the high school.
“These cases are independent cases that we have identified,” she said. “We don’t yet have documented evidence of in-school transmission, so those aren’t all cases that were contracted at school.
“But those are all cases we know are positive and they were in school while they were contagious, so we know that there were a lot of exposures related to those cases,” Berry continued.
“But there are over 1,000 kids at Port Angeles High School, so when you look at 19 out of 1,000, it’s not beyond really what you would expect, given how much the virus is in the community.”
Quillayute School District in Forks reported it has had a few cases and that it is continuing to follow state Department of Health guidelines but is not considering taking any additional precautions at this time.
“We have been very fortunate out here in Forks since the shift in lowering our safety measures,” Superintendent Diana Reaume said. “Our main focus is to remind our students and employees to conduct a self-health or wellness check, and if someone has symptoms, we test for COVID-19,”
Quilcene hasn’t had a positive COVID-19 case since late February.
“We have been very fortunate in Quilcene,” Superintendent Frank Redmon said. “We have not had any cases or outbreaks in the school for some time.”
Crescent and Cape Flattery school districts reported not having any increases in COVID-19 cases, with Cape Flattery reporting one positive case over the course of the year, according to Superintendent Michelle Parkin.
Comment was not available on Wednesday for Brinnon School District.
Reporter Ken Park can be reached at [email protected].