NC health officials no longer recommend contact tracing at K-12 schools

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services officials announced individual contact tracing and exclusion from school for asymptomatic people after an exposure is no longer recommended statewide in K-12 schools.

“I think it’s been a long time coming,” said Brooke Weiss, Mecklenburg chapter chair of Moms for Liberty. “But I’m very pleased. And I think it means that healthy children won’t have to miss school anymore.”

State health officials updated the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit on Feb. 10 to focus on strategies effective at this stage of the pandemic, such as vaccines, boosters, testing and wearing masks.

Similar changes were made to the ChildCareStrongNC Public Health Toolkit.

The updates to the toolkits go into effect Feb. 21.

Students and staff don’t have to stay home from school after being exposed to COVID-19, unless they are sick or test positive.

“We are committed to ensuring North Carolinians have the guidance and information necessary to balance their risk during each stage of the pandemic and learn to live with COVID-19,” said NCDHHS Secretary Kody H. Kinsley in a news release. “Keeping kids in the classroom remains a top priority. As we have done throughout the pandemic, we evaluate which tools are most effective to protect students and staff. This is the right approach for this point in the pandemic and includes flexibility for local schools and health departments to use data to make informed decisions and respond to local conditions.”

The NCDHHS said contact tracing has become less effective in the community because of:

  • Emergence of variants with shorter incubation periods and rapid transmission.
  • People with infections are most contagious prior to symptom onset and during the first few days of illness.
  • Larger number of asymptomatic and less severe cases due, in part, to more immunity from vaccination and past infection.
  • Many infections are never identified by public health agencies because people with asymptomatic or mild cases may not get tested and due to the Increasing use of “over-the-counter” at-home tests.
  • Widespread virus and low rates of case and contact identification limit effectiveness of contact tracing to reduce transmission.

“With so much vaccination. With so many of the cases being asymptomatic, contact tracing is not very effective,” said Michael Thompson, associate chair of Public Health Sciences, UNC Charlotte. “And those resources are better deployed trying to convince more people to be vaccinated.”

The notification of potential exposure is recommended in schools, health officials said.

Local schools and health departments can continue contact tracing.

State health leaders still recommend universal masking in areas with high transmission.

“It’s a good idea for many people to continue to wear masks, even if a mask mandate is removed to continue to think about social distancing, to the extent possible,” Thompson said.

For more information, visit the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit.

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