COVID spread raising concerns over new wave

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Managing Editor
A recent spike in confirmed COVID cases locally and across the state have raised concerns of a new wave of virus spread.

The recent increase in cases has had the biggest impact on area schools as well as the growing strain on hospital capacity.

Thursday, Williamson County changed the gating stage – which indicates the threat or amount of community spread of COVID-19 – from orange to red, after having just a week ago elevated it to orange on Nov. 12.

Their are four phased stages beginning with green, which indicates flat or declining numbers, to yellow, then orange, followed by red, which indicates uncontrolled community spread.

Red indicates uncontrolled community spread, and Williamson County numbers have shown a sharp increase in cases and hospitalizations in November. There have been an average of 64 confirmed cases per day this month, after averaging 33 per day in October and 24 in September.

School closure
Liberty Hill ISD announced Monday that a spike in cases at the Junior High forced the closure of the campus for the remainder of the week leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday.

Over a four-day period beginning Nov. 12, the Junior High had 13 confirmed cases, 10 probable cases and was looking at needing to quarantine 200 others. At that point, the temporary closure made the most sense for administrators.

“That gives us four days going into the break plus another 10, and that puts everybody in that 14-day limit with only missing four days of school,” said Superintendent Steve Snell. “To us, we felt that was the best common sense decision to keep our students and staff safe. It is definitely not a decision we wanted to make, because it effects 900 families and 100 staff members.”

The rapid spread on the Junior High campus made the biggest impact on the decision.

“When you think about it, from July 1 until last Thursday we had 23 cases total — staff and students,” Snell said. “As of last Thursday, we had one official case, an adult, and 11 kids quarantined, that’s it. All of the spread we had seen was from individual families with a sick family member, but we had no spread on campuses. What happened at the Junior High is we had a student case pop up Thursday and from Thursday to Monday we had 13 cases, 10 probable and it was going to put us over 200 kids quarantined at the Junior High.”

No single number or indicator led to the decision on its own, he said.

“We have a ton of procedures obviously and we’re in close contact with the Williamson County Health Department,” Snell said. “There’s no number we focus on. It is a data-driven decision. We try to add common sense to the equation.”

Because the recent spike was confined to the Junior High, Snell said the data didn’t support shutting down other campuses. As painful as he knows it is for families to cope with the closure, Snell asked for understanding and cooperation from parents.

“Everybody has to be honest with what they’re seeing,” he said. “If your kid is sick you understand staying home. When your kid has direct exposure, but they’re not sick, it is very frustrating when the school calls and says you have to stay home. We feel we’re doing the right thing 100 percent and our health services team is doing an amazing job. We want people to know to please be nice to our health services team if they call. They’re doing exactly what we’re asking them to do in the best interest of their child and safety.”

Across the district, LHISD has nine other active cases, with four student cases at the High School, two staff cases at the Intermediate School and one each at Liberty Hill Elementary, Bill Burden and Santa Rita – all student cases.

As far as symptoms among the positive cases across the district, health services staff indicated most common symptoms include congestion, sore throat and fatigue, and noted that many of them do not have fever. The staff cases have shown a longer recovery time than the student cases.

The pivot to remote learning from Monday to Tuesday was not one that concerned Snell, as the district has been focused on being ready to make that quick change since the school year began.

“We struggled and fought technology all in the spring and we’ve had some road bumps along the way, but we feel we can make a smooth transition directly to remote for everyone,” he said.

That said, he also said that there are struggles seen among some on remote learning and the district is looking forward to being able to get everyone back on campus.

“Absolutely, K through 12, the time lost last spring, plus the summer, that’s six months with no school whatsoever, there’s going to be some gaps for everyone,” Snell said. “As we started this year remote, some students and some families are very successful on remote and we want to keep that an option for them, but there are a lot of kids on remote that we’re not seeing the success we’d like to see. We feel the absolute best place for all students is in front of that qualified teacher in the classroom, interacting.”

The campus closure in Liberty Hill comes as other districts are dealing with similar increases. Austin ISD temporarily closed Austin High last week and Stony Point High School in Round Rock closed until after the holiday break. Llano ISD has gone to remote learning for all district campuses.

COVID numbers
The number hospitalized for COVID-19 in Williamson County has increased from 25 on Oct. 1 to 48 on Tuesday.

Despite the increases, Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell said he has no plans to enact more strict guidelines in the County.

“The Williamson County and Cities Health District makes recommendations based on the COVID-19 transmission rate to help residents understand the risks. The guidelines are suggested for planning, but are not requirements,” Gravell said. “Each governing body is responsible for making decisions for their entity. As the County Judge, I have no plans to enact another stay home order. Williamson County trusts our residents to be smart and prudent. We know that they will take the appropriate measures to stay safe.”

In Liberty Hill, Emergency Management Coordinator Casey Cobb reported Wednesday 18 current confirmed cases, up from four last week.

While no decision has been announced, the City of Liberty Hill posted on its Facebook page this week that the Christmas Festival is still scheduled for Dec. 12, but that the situation was being monitored and that modifications to festival plans would be announced Nov. 24.

The City did not respond to questions from The Independent about how the decision to make any changes would be made.

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