North Carolina health officials no longer recommend contact tracing in K-12 schools, adjust quarantine guidelines

RALEIGH, N.C. (WBTV) — North Carolina health officials are no longer recommending contact tracing in K-12 public schools, according to a Thursday afternoon update to their guidance on the toolbox.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced updates to the StrongSchoolsNC public health toolkit focusing on the most effective strategies at this stage of the pandemic, such as vaccines, boosters , testing and masking.

The department no longer recommends individual contact tracing in K-12 schools.

Related: Union County School Board votes to end COVID-19 contact tracing and quarantine requirements

Additionally, the NCDHHS recommends that students and staff no longer be required to stay home after exposure to COVID-19 unless they have symptoms or test positive.

Officials say similar updates will be made to the ChildCareStrongNC public health toolkit.

Updates to both toolkits will go into effect on February 21, 2022.

“We are committed to ensuring that North Carolinas has the guidance and information necessary to balance their risk through each stage of the pandemic and learn to live with COVID-19,” said NCDHHS Secretary Kody H. Kinsley. “Keeping children in class remains a top priority. As we have done throughout the pandemic, we are evaluating which tools are most effective in protecting students and staff. It’s the right approach for this stage of the pandemic and it includes flexibility for schools and local health departments to use the data to make informed decisions and respond to local conditions.

Building on lessons learned during the Omicron push and throughout the pandemic, NCDHHS continues to focus on the most effective public health tools to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Related: Union County Public Schools End COVID-19 Contact Tracing and Quarantine Requirements

Officials say these tools, which are outlined in the toolkit guidelines, include promoting vaccination and stimulation, wearing a mask when transmission rates are high, testing and stay home when sick.

“Our COVID-19 response is built on teamwork and trust between local authorities, school nurses, child care staff and parents as we follow the science and use the best public health tools available to protect our children,” the state health director and NCDHHS said. Chief Medical Officer Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, MD “As conditions change, we adapt our tools, prioritize what works, and stay focused on our common goal: to keep our children healthy and learning.”

Contact tracing has been an important tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19, and it remains important in some high-risk gathering settings. However, several factors at this point in the pandemic have reduced the overall effectiveness of contact tracing in K-12 schools and in the wider community.

These factors include:

  • Emergence of variants with shorter incubation periods and rapid transmission.
  • Infected people are most contagious before symptoms appear and during the first days of illness.
  • A higher number of asymptomatic and less severe cases due, in part, to greater immunity to vaccination and previous infections.
  • Many infections are never identified by public health agencies because people with asymptomatic or mild cases may not be tested and because of the increasing use of “over-the-counter” home testing.
  • The spread of the virus and low case and contact identification rates limit the effectiveness of contact tracing to reduce transmission.

Although exclusion from school is no longer recommended following an exposure, notification of a potential exposure is recommended.

The updated toolkit includes options for schools to notify potentially exposed students or staff when a case of COVID-19 is identified in the school setting.

Local schools and health departments may choose to continue contact tracing; The NCDHHS has suggested strategies in the toolkit that schools can consider based on local conditions.

NCDHHS regularly updates the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit to ensure local K-12 schools have the best tools available to reduce the risk of COVID-19 and keep students in class while providing schools and local health departments the flexibility to use local data to assess and respond to local conditions.

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