Masks will be required in schools if case rates hit “substantial,” Health Dept. says

by Kate Evans

Public health officials on Monday released rules about when face masks could be required in local schools as they reopen.

In a public letter, Berkeley-Morgan County Health Department Health Officer Dr. Kevin McLaughlin said mask wearing will be “universal” in all private and public schools in Morgan and Berkeley Counties when COVID cases hit a certain 7-day average.

The Morgan-Berkeley Counties Health Department will require universal mask use in schools for all individuals for any week when the 7-day rolling average goes above substantial (50-99 cases per 100,000) on the Friday of the week before.

This is based on the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for COVID-19 prevention and is effective immediately, McLaughlin wrote.

10 or more cases

For Morgan County with its population of roughly 18,000 people, the definition of “substantial” will mean when the 7-day rolling average hits 10 or more COVID-19 cases, said McLaughlin.

For easy math they’ve rounded the county population of roughly 18,000 to 20,000, so “substantial” mean 10 cases or above per 20,000 people.

Morgan County’s 7-day COVID case numbers, as shown on the West Virginia DHHR map.

As of Monday, 23 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the county over the preceding 7-day period, according to the West Virginia DHHR alert map.

The Morgan County Health Department will post the 7-day rolling average number of COVID-19 cases around 3 p.m. every Friday starting this week.

If the number is 10 or above, students, school personnel and visitors will wear face masks in schools for the coming week, Dr. McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said that the Health Department will also get the information to the schools and to the public to let them know whether or not face masks will be required for the upcoming week of school.

The most recent state guidelines give Health Departments the power to make these determinations based on current COVID-19 community transmission.  COVID-19 cases are up locally and there were two more deaths attributed to COVID-19 last week, bringing the total of county deaths from the virus to 25.

The 7-day trend for COVID-19 cases for each county can be found on the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources COVID-19 website.

CDC recommends masks

Dr. McLaughlin noted that the CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. Children should return to fulltime in-school learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies in place.

Anyone K-12 should be masked in areas of low vaccination rates as the best course of action, he said.

County has low vaccination rates

Morgan County has 27.5% of its eligible population fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and 30.3% of its population partially vaccinated with one dose, according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources COVID-19 website.

The CDC classifies virus transmission rates based on the running 7-day rolling total of cases per 100,000 people as low (0-9 case), moderate (10-49 cases), substantial (50-99 cases) and high (100 and above).

Local authorities should use these levels of transmission to guide their decisions as they monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, screening testing and occurrences of outbreaks, McLaughlin said in his letter.

Keeping kids in school

McLaughlin said in a Monday afternoon phone call that “all of this is for keeping kids in school for in-person learning and keeping transmission numbers down.”

“Masking works and vaccinations work.  They’re the best tools we’ve got and we need to use them,” McLaughlin said.

Back to school

Morgan County Schools are holding Back-to-School Night orientations next week.  The mask rules could be in effect for those events if the Health Department determines local case levels to be in the “substantial” range.

School staff returns to work on Wednesday, August 18. Students return to classrooms on Tuesday, August 24.