COVID vs. the common cold: How Vt. schools are preparing for winter

Published: Sep. 22, 2020 at 7:53 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 22, 2020 at 9:12 AM EDT
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ESSEX JCT., Vt. (WCAX) - As cold and flu season looms, many are concerned about both sicknesses making their way through schools and being confused with COVID-19.

The Vermont Department of Health has a simple flow chart for schools to use to screen students. It starts with one simple question: Have you been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or been in a high-risk travel area? From there, they are able to assess.

“If a student comes to us with symptoms, we can follow that flow chart and know just exactly what we are expected to do,” said Diana Smith, the COVID-19 coordinator at the Essex Westford School District.

The district has been able to start school in what they call a “successful manner” thanks to guidelines in place. Smith says other than some nausea and a few coughs, they haven’t had to raise an alarm, but that doesn’t mean they can let their guard down.

“If a child comes in with a fever, that is an automatic that they are going to go home. If it’s anything 100.4 and over, their parents will be called -- they’ll be leaving,” said Smith.

Along with a fever, strict COVID-19 symptoms like a hard cough or shortness of breath, along with loss of taste or smell will get a child isolated and sent home. But Smith says they know other sicknesses lead to the occasional cough or sniffle. She says they will be checking allergy records and will be using their nursing judgment to make the final call about whether a student should go home and be tested, a judgment she says will be critical heading into cold and flu season.

“The mitigation strategies that are being enacted in the Vermont schools we believe may be able to impact the ability for flu and other respiratory viruses to infect children, as well,” said Dr. Benjamin Lee with the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital.

He says it is too soon to say whether cold and flu season will be severe this year. However, he says other regions of the world, specifically countries in the southern hemisphere, are coming out of their winter season with extremely low rates of cold and flu.

“There was a stunningly low amount of influenza activity being noticed in those regions. We believe a lot of that had to do with physical distancing and mitigation measures that were enacted to halt COVID while it looks like it did an absolutely marvelous job halting influenza transmission, as well," Lee said.

He says that with less influenza circulating around the world, there is a chance our rates of flu infection in the U.S. could remain low this season. He also says a summer in quarantine or avoiding germs won’t leave a student more vulnerable.

“Just a short period of time being away from other kids is not going to have any effect on a child’s immune system being able to do its job effectively," Lee said.

And he says even if the cold and flu does find its way into schools, those are the diseases that infect children easier than they expect COVID-19 to.

“I would not want parents to be alarmed that if their child does get a cough or a cold or even the flu, that doesn’t mean that the strategies that we have to try and prevent COVID-19 aren’t working," said Lee.

The doctor also says one of the best ways to help this cold and flu season during the pandemic is to get your flu shot. He says that’s because of the similar symptoms. He says if we keep down the flu, we keep down the amount of needed health care, testing and sick days for parents and children.

He also still recommends avid hand washing, mask-wearing and social distancing. His advice to parents: take the burden off schools and keep your children home if they’re sick with any symptoms.

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