COVID contact tracing in schools an ‘overwhelming’ process, Trumbull health official says

Hillcrest Middle School in Trumbull

Hillcrest Middle School in Trumbull

Contributed photo / Bryan Rickert

TRUMBULL — Although about 70 students and staff from Hillcrest Middle School have been quarantined due to possible exposure to a person who tested positive for COVID-19, the school could have remained open if there were enough substitute teachers available, the superintendent said.

Superintendent Martin Semmel notified parents this week of the positive case at the middle school as well as one at Trumbull High School.

Semmel said the schools were “working closely with the Trumbull Nursing Department and the Trumbull Health Department to identify anyone who had close contact with the person to determine if they might have been exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19.”

According to Trumbull Health Director Lucienne Bango, “close contact” is “being within 6 feet of a person for more than 15 minutes.”

That level of contact would rule out casual contact like passing in the hallways or standing near someone in the bus or lunch line.

With such a precise definition, how is it possible that 70 people had to be quarantined? The answer is due to the limitations of contact tracing.

“Tracing the movement and contacts of a person (in a school setting) would be overwhelming,” Bango said. “We don’t have the staff or the resources to do that.”

So the department then is forced to err on the side of caution. For example, if an infected person was in a classroom for a 45-minute period, everyone who was in that room for that time is considered to have been in close contact, and therefore, is requested to quarantine, Bango said.

While the schools have not said whether the infected person at Hillcrest was a student or a staff member, a student who attended classes in several different rooms during the day or a teacher who had several groups of students come through the classroom would have similar results. In both cases, once the rooms were cleaned and the people who were in them quarantined, it then would be safe for school to resume if sufficient staff were available.

Semmel reiterated this when explaining the decision to keep Trumbull High School open, despite the positive test result Wednesday.

“If no additional cases are identified, we anticipate that THS will remain open,” he wrote.

Once the positive test was confirmed, Semmel said, the priority shifted to identifying people who may have been exposed and notifying them of the need to quarantine.

“If you or your child are identified as having been potentially exposed, the Trumbull Nursing Department will contact you to ask that you please stay home and monitor for symptoms of cough, shortness of breath, or a temperature higher than 100.4 degrees and practice social distancing for 14 days from your last contact,” he wrote. “If you are not contacted by the Trumbull Nursing Department, you do not need to stay home or exclude yourself from activities at this time.”

The district advises all parents to continue monitoring their children’s health in accordance with the guidelines established by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Children with COVID-19 generally have mild symptoms such as fever, runny nose and cough. Children with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk.

Semmel said he was looking forward to Hillcrest’s reopening, but reminded parents that preventing outbreaks at the school relied on everyone taking precautions.

“With your participation, we believe we can create a safe and fun experience for your children,” he wrote.