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Iredell County Reports North Carolina's First School COVID-19 Outbreak

Iredell-Statesville Schools
North Iredell High is in the North Carolina town of Olin.

Even before students return to schools, an Iredell County high school has reported a cluster of COVID-19 cases. 

Iredell-Statesville Schools got word from the local Health Department last week: An employee at North Iredell High School, about 50 miles north of Charlotte, tested positive for the coronavirus.

Most employees had been sent home, along with the students, in mid-March. But administrators, custodians and some counselors and athletic staff remained on campus through last week, said communications director Boen Nutting.

"We had one case that, you know, the next day turned into two cases, which rapidly turned into three cases. And we decided at that point that it was best for us to close that campus," Nutting said.

Shortly after that decision, the health department reported two more cases. That officially made it a school COVID cluster – a definition so new that the state hasn’t even started posting tallies like it does for outbreaks at nursing homes and other congregate living centers.

The Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday this is the state's first reported school cluster.

In late May, state health officials defined five or more cases in a child care center or school as a cluster if they occur within 14 days and have a "plausible epidemiological linkage." A June 8 letter says the state will start reporting clusters in child-care settings next week, while school reporting is set to start with the return of students for summer or traditional school.

The state uses the term "cluster" for those settings, as opposed to "outbreak" for congregate living facilities with two or more active cases.

Cluster Without Students

That puts Iredell-Statesville Schools in the vanguard of something that’s going to be a statewide issue soon. The General Assembly has mandated an Aug. 17 return to classrooms, though Gov. Roy Cooper could override or restrict that.

"We are on a small scale beginning to work through what this may look like for us in the fall," Nutting said Monday.

What Nutting can say for sure is that no students were exposed and no employees have died. She wouldn’t disclose individual information if she had it, but Nutting said the health department is doing the contact tracing, and that means there’s a lot the district doesn’t know.

"What they’re doing is they’re contact tracing but they’re also maintaining confidentiality," she said. "So there’s a bit of mystery around it and it’s hard to navigate."

This Isn't Easy

The cluster has reinforced what health officials say: You can enforce social distancing, use face coverings and remind people to stay home if they’re sick, but that may not be enough.

"There are folks that are testing and are asymptomatic, and so that’s one thing that’s really difficult," Nutting said. "You know, you come to work, you feel great, you’re at work and you have no idea you’re sick."

While North Iredell High remains closed for 14 days, Nutting said the district is working through plans for its 37 schools and 2,700 employees. The state has asked all public schools to plan for three options: a full return to class with minor modifications, a more restricted return and a continuation of remote instruction.

"We can learn a lot from stuff like this now," Nutting said, "and I’d rather us learn it now than learn it in August, you know?"

Still, Nutting can’t help thinking how much tougher this will be when the numbers are larger and children are involved.

"Can you imagine when the first kindergartener tests positive for COVID?" she said. "I just … I can’t, you know?"

Nutting said Iredell-Statesville is anxiously awaiting further directions along with the rest of the state.

Cooper said he’ll announce by July 1 which path he’ll choose for schools. Local districts will have the option to choose a more restricted opening based on local conditions.

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