CHEYENNE – After at least one teacher and one student at McCormick Junior High School tested positive for COVID-19 last week, the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department is urging continued use of face masks among all students and staff.
“Masks, for the time-being, are the next best thing to actually having a vaccine,” Dr. Stan Hartman, county health officer, told the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees at a meeting Monday night. “Right now, having students wearing masks whenever they cannot properly social distance is the key to keeping the schools open.”
The school district, which is Wyoming’s largest, requires that all students and school personnel wear face masks that cover their mouths and noses when it is not possible to remain at least 6 feet apart from others.
Before schools reopened last month, the district made it clear that the majority of schools do not have the capacity to separate classroom desks by 6 feet and that most of the time everyone would need to wear a mask. Students and employees who are not compliant with mask use could face formal disciplinary action.
“The utility and effectiveness of masks is so widespread in the medical community that it’s not even a subject of debate anymore,” Hartman said. “Unfortunately, it remains a hot-button political issue among some segments of the population.”
That was on full display last week, when a group of around 30 Wyomingites gathered in front of the state Capitol to speak out against the mask mandate in schools. Some of those protesters shared anecdotes with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle that wearing a mask all day made their respiratory-compromised children feel sick.
Hartman said Monday, however, that there are “very, very few” medical conditions that would realistically prevent a person from wearing a face mask in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The district this year opened the entirely online Cheyenne Virtual School, which accommodates any children who do not wish to wear masks all day, or who are immunocompromised and concerned about catching the virus.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the use of masks are very effective at reducing the transmission and acquisition of this particular disease,” Hartman said, explaining how masks are the most effective tool for disrupting the flow of the respiratory disease droplets through the air.
“We know that a lot of the people with this disease do not have symptoms, but yet they can spread the infection,” he added.
The two confirmed cases of COVID-19 have sent about 100 students at McCormick into a two-week quarantine away from school grounds in an effort to employ contact tracing methods and prevent any further outbreak of the virus.
“When we have a situation in a school where someone is COVID-positive – and we have all of our students and teachers masked – how does that influence our plan for quarantining students?” Trustee Lynn Storey-Huylar asked.
“The mask provides protection for both the giver and the receiver of the communication,” Kasey Mullins, nursing director for the local health department, said. “When we do a contact tracing, we talk to the positive individual to find out how close in contact they were, and if they were wearing the mask themself.”
Mullins said that only health care providers – who wear medical-grade personal protective equipment – can receive a quarantine exemption by wearing a mask. Otherwise, anyone who is deemed to have come into close contact with a COVID-positive person – like the 100 McCormick students – must remain quarantined for at least two weeks. That remains in effect even if they receive a negative test result because it can take several days for the virus to develop in a person’s body.
“While the cloth mask provides a high level of protection, we can’t validate the integrity of every cloth mask out there,” Mullins said. “The goal of quarantine is to hopefully (ensure) that they do not transmit the virus, and that they stay healthy during those 14 days.”