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Health officials keep tabs on COVID variant as Rugby schools open

By Sue Sitter - | Aug 14, 2021

As area families prepare to send their children back to school, health officials in Pierce County and North Dakota are keeping their eyes on numbers of COVID-19 and COVID Delta variant cases.

The North Dakota Department of Health reported one new COVID infection in Pierce County as of Aug. 5, with one active case.

The state’s cumulative case total for Pierce County, which includes infections since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, sits at 557.

The Rugby Public School District posted a statement by Mike McNeff, superintendent of schools on their website at the beginning of August.

“I have fielded a few questions about what this fall will look like,” McNeff said in the statement. “The school board established the following policies on April 13, 2021, and they remain in effect this fall. We will continue to monitor the situation throughout the school year.”

McNeff said in his statement Rugby schools would continue not to require masks. “The district will require a quarantine for only those that test positive and those who are identified as household contacts,” his statement added.

Parents, health officials and a high school student expressed varying levels of concern about the possible local impact by the Delta variant on Rugby schools.

Randi Heisler, who coordinates vaccine programs for COVID-19 for the state, lives in Rugby and has children attending Rugby schools.

Heisler said via electronic message she was willing to have her children wear masks back to school if necessary. Her son, Macen, received his COVID vaccine when it became available to teens age 12-15.

“My opinion is the data is clear,” Heisler said. “Masks kept our kids in school, sports and activities last year and the reality is we are entering this school year in the same position as last. We don’t have enough vaccinated and the Delta variant is a real threat. I trust our administration to make the right decisions going forward and hope our community can come through together to support our schools and healthcare professionals when and if they need to be made.”

Heart of America Medical Center CEO Erik Christenson, who also holds a doctorate in pharmacy, said he recently heard information about the Delta variant from Dr. Paul Carson, who Christenson said is “one of the leading infectious disease physicians in the state.

Christenson said Carson “expressed concerns that the Delta variant is more infectious and spreads more readily throughout the populace. And he said of those who are not vaccinated, it’s not an issue of whether or not you’re going to get COVID; you either get vaccinated or you’re going to get COVID

“He also had a lot to talk about ‘Long COVID.’ By that, we mean the long-term side effects of COVID,” Christenson added. “We’re seeing significant long-term side effects with COVID where a large percentage of people with COVID are having continued shortness of breath, continued trouble concentrating and other continued long-term problems. He even talked about the MRI changes in the brains of those who’ve had COVID in terms of grey matter shrinkage.”

“So, there are some pretty scary things out there he’s talking about,” Christenson said.

Christenson’s son, Isaac, will be a junior when he returns to Rugby High School Aug. 19.

Christenson said “Isaac wanted to get vaccinated and it was my personal decision that he should get vaccinated, so he got vaccinated. I’m 99.99 percent sure that the vaccine provides significant benefit. It doesn’t mean you wouldn’t get sick; you could still get affected, but 99 out of 100 times, it’s going to prevent you from getting as sick, hospitalized or having serious side effects.”

“From what I’ve seen and have observed, it’s a highly effective vaccine,” Christenson said. “There are side effects; there are side effects to everything we give. There are very, very few things that have no side effects. So, I think if you look at the data with the safety of the vaccine versus the risks of COVID, my opinion and my opinion with my family were the risks of COVID were much greater than they were with the vaccine.”

“I’m pretty confident in it,” Christenson said of the vaccine. “I’m not saying it’s not going to spread and go through the community like the flu but I’m confident that with his chances of getting a severe case are very much diminished.”

Christenson said he supported any possible future mask mandates at Rugby schools should COVID and Delta variant cases increase.

“We have to live with that in hospitals with OSHA, ETS (emergency temporary standard) that mandate masks,” Christenson said.

“If you look at certain health professions – surgeons, dentists, they wear masks all the time and have for years and years. There’s never been any problems with masking there,” Christenson said.

“For me, it’s just another thing. When you work at a hospital, you can’t have open-toed shoes in certain areas,” Christenson added. “Dress code is part of it and if masking becomes part of a dress code in certain areas, I wouldn’t say I like it but if it’s something that provides added safety, I’m all for doing it.”

However, Christenson noted masks can be ineffective in some cases.

“The thing is with masking, it has to be done well and that’s a problem. People touch their masks; they don’t wear them right. When they’re worn inappropriately, they’re not very useful,” he said.

“Masks have to be (put on) professionally and appropriately. That’s why I’m not sure how beneficial it is for kids to wear them,” Christenson added. “I’m not sure how beneficial it is for people outside of health care because they get reused. They get touched and handled and then, it’s not very beneficial. But in health care settings, they’re beneficial.”

“Given my position and what I’ve had to go through with COVID and all the work I’ve seen with it and all the risk and danger that’s involved with it, I will support whatever’s needed to benefit the lives of our students and our families and our community,” Christenson added.

Returning Rugby High senior Alyssa Harmel said she hadn’t really thought about a possible return to stricter health protocols in school.

“I haven’t really heard much about (how the Delta variant could affect school plans),” Harmel said. “Last year, I just really wanted us to stay in school and keep up with sports and be able to go to games. But I know there are some people that really don’t like wearing masks.”

“I am vaccinated for COVID, but I’ve thought that if the CDC felt that the Delta variant was getting bad enough, we should be safe and wear masks,” Harmel added.

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