School board member pushes back against current COVID plan at MCSD

Students enter and exit the building on the first day of school at Moffat County High School.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press

Sullivan recommends requiring masks; some board members agree

Dr. Elise Sullivan — the only Moffat County School District board member who currently practices in the medical field — took a stance Thursday against the school district’s current plan of operations in regards to COVID-19. Sullivan presented statistics and scientific findings at Thursday’s school board workshop and recommended that the district begin requiring masks.

“I think what we’re all realizing is this is just not going away,” Sullivan said. “It’s going to continue to infect non-immune people until we have reached herd immunity. And unfortunately, that barrier towards herd immunity got higher and harder with the Delta variant.”

In her presentation, Sullivan noted that Moffat County School District was not following Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recommendations. Currently, MCSD does not require masks in school buildings unless the school reaches certain positivity thresholds. This week, Craig Middle School is the only school that reached that threshold of 2% positivity, so adults at CMS are required to wear masks. At 3% positivity, the district will require that students wear masks at that particular building. MCSD releases positivity and quarantined numbers every week on its COVID-19 dashboard.

Dr. Elise Sullivan, speaking as a member of the Moffat County School District board of education, presents data on the COVID-19 spread nationally and locally as she pushes for masks to be required in Moffat County schools.
Eliza Noe / Craig Press

To achieve herd immunity with the Delta variant, 90% of the population must have either had the virus or has been vaccinated for COVID-19, Sullivan said.

Sullivan also presented several options to relieve the risk of further spread within MCSD buildings. MCSD also suspended contact tracing after a large influx of exposures sent many students home to quarantine, a decision that left potentially asymptomatic students in class. Now, parents are only notified when a child in the same class or building tests positive, and parents decide whether or not to quarantine their child based on symptoms.

“Longhaul COVID is underappreciated because of how long it can take to recover from,” Sullivan said. “It’s like Russian roulette. You may get asymptomatic. But unfortunately, you might transfer it to a loved one, or you might just get a seven-day flu where you’re laying in bed, or you might be so severe you could need a heart transplant.”

Sullivan’s suggestions include smaller class sizes, good ventilation, high vaccination rates, masks, good respiratory behaviors (such as coughing into one’s elbow and hand-washing) and frequent surveillance testing. Sullivan also recommends masking indoors for all staff, students and visitors of MCSD. Back in August, Sullivan was the only board member to vote against the reopening plan presented by superintendent Scott Pankow, mainly because it went against CDPHE guidelines and recommendations for schools.

MCSD buildings have seen more transmissions inside than last year, Sullivan said. Higher levels of transmissions in the community have led to more hospitalizations at Memorial Regional Hospital, and Sullivan said that several people have been flown out to receive ICU care, including someone under the age of 19.

When it comes to vaccination, Sullivan also dispelled common misinformation she has heard in her family medical practice. In her practice, patients come in and say they have not gotten the vaccine because they “probably” already had COVID-19. In actuality, Sullivan said, only around 1 in 10 who have that sentiment actually have the antibodies that show they have already had the virus.

“I feel like a lot of people in the community say, ‘I think I’ve had COVID already,'” Sullivan said. “I’ve done antibody testing, and really, nine out of 10 people who come in, they’re not showing that they have had infection.”

In Moffat County, less than half of residents have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. This differs from the state of Colorado as a whole, which has a vaccination rate of over 75%. Lower vaccination rates lead to the spread of viral variants, which in the case of Moffat County has been primarily the Delta variant. The Delta variant has been seen to affect young people much more strongly than the original strain.

Sullivan also expressed concern with COVID-19 patients filling hospital space. She said that MRH has had to face delays as a result of full COVID-19 units. This can affect other departments of the hospital. For instance, space being used for COVID patients can limit emergency space for non-COVID patients, such as heart attack patients or car crash victims. MRH can support five people on high-flow oxygen before the medical gas system is strained.

“My comfort level is with hospital capacity,” Sullivan said. “We now have a vaccine. And that is an adult decision with adult consequences whether you get vaccinated or not. As long as we have the capacity to take care of you, we can make those decisions as adults. In the spring, there was a thought that we would not hit hospital capacity… We are seeing a tenuous hospital capacity (at MRH).”

MRH can support nine patients in its COVID unit, and with delays, that could mean COVID patients are waiting in Emergency Department services until another patient is discharged before being moved to the COVID unit. Sullivan said one patient had to wait 19 hours to be flown to an ICU that could support their higher level of need.

“Last week, MRH attempted for over 24 hours to find an ICU bed for a non-COVID patient, but was unsuccessful. The patient died from their illness,” Sullivan said of another patient.

Though the board would not take a vote on changing COVID-19 protocols Thursday night at its regular meeting, which followed the workshop, several members of the board voiced opinions and concerns about potentially moving to a mask mandate for everyone in MCSD buildings.

JoBeth Tupa, vice president of the board, said that it may be worth looking at the reopening plan again after hearing data from MRH, which is what she called a “community partner” of the school board.

“We have a community partner of ours looking at us and telling us that they need help, something has to change, and something has to give,” Tupa said. “With that, I don’t know what (a new plan) could look like. We’re not making a decision to dive in and update it; we hadn’t planned on it. Let me just be real clear. That’s not where I’m headed. I’m just saying that I think that we’re being asked to take a look at our plan if it’s not working. If it’s only going to get worse, and it’s not working now, then I think that we kind of have an obligation as to what it is that we have within our purview that we can do to help sort of ease (strain at MRH).”

Board member Chris Thome echoed concerns, citing that the reopening plan for this fall looks completely different than last fall — especially considering that infection rates are higher this year than they were at this time last year.

“It felt to me last year, what we were doing at least worked to a certain degree,” Thome said. “So I think we found ourselves here because of inaction.”

Cindy Looper, on the other hand, was hesitant to change the current plan put forth by the district. On Monday, board members met with the county commissioners to discuss updates on the situation at MCSD, and it was decided by the commissioners that the current plan was working.

“I’m at the point that we’re all going to get (COVID-19) at one point or another, and the people that are not choosing to vaccinate are going to get sicker than the ones that have chosen,” Looper said. “Again, (we want to be) protecting our kids, but we also have to educate them. Education does not work remotely. It didn’t work at all (last year).”

Board president JoAnn Baxter seemed ready to stay the course, but said the discussion would continue.

“We will continue to monitor, (and) we will continue to review,” Baxter said. “If we need to hold a special meeting, we will.”

More Like This, Tap A Topic

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Craig and Moffat County make the Craig Press’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.