The soonest any Columbus area schools will reopen is April 6, and that’s the earliest, according to local education officials.
“We felt it was important to be united in our message for our students, families and in our community,” Columbus Public Schools Superintendent Troy Loeffelholz said, referring to CPS, Lakeview Community Schools and Scotus Central Catholic’s decision made Sunday night to close their doors for the week due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the nation and Nebraska.
The local schools have now extended that hiatus for the foreseeable future after State Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt recently announced plans to recommend all public schools close at the end of the week.
That united approach was what was stressed Tuesday morning in the Columbus City Council Chambers during a press conference that included community leaders in Loeffelholz, Scotus President Jeff Ohnoutka, Columbus Mayor Jim Bulkley, Columbus Community Hospital President/CEO Mike Hansen and other medical professionals, along with Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce President Jeanne Schieffer and members of the East-Central District Health Department like Chief Public Health Officer Chuck Sepers. The purpose was to emphasize that local entities are in constant communication with one another and collectively promoting the “flatten the curve” model when it comes to the coronavirus outbreak potentially infesting the local area.
“Flattening the curve” refers to an epidemic curve that is commonly used to visualize response to disease outbreaks and helps show why public efforts to contain the spread are critical. Although the virus can’t be entirely stopped, it can be slowed in hopes to leave health care systems in a better position to treat people.
“We don’t know what the extent will be, but we have to be prepared for everything,” said Dr. Mark Howerter, CCH’s medical director of the emergency department.
The most effective way to go about “flattening the curve” is simple: Self-quarantine. Quarantines aim to restrict the movement of people who may have been exposed to the contagious disease but haven’t tested positive. The CDC recommends 14 days to see whether flu-like symptoms develop.
Officials on hand talked about the importance of social distancing and quarantines, with Hansen noting the local area has a window of opportunity right now to address the matter before things could potentially get seriously problematic.
Loeffelholz reiterated that point, noting how just the other day he had come out of a staff meeting and had seen plenty of students driving around while he was making his was along 33rd Avenue. His point was that people need to stop viewing the school hiatus as a snow day.
“Please stay home,” he pleaded.
With that in mind, officials from the schools are working on plans to keep students focused even though they can’t be in the classroom physically. District officials talked about tentative plans for teachers to prepare take-home packets that will be available for pick-up in the near future.
Columbus and Lakeview also are working on plans to provide meals to students who depend on school to get them. Loeffelholz said students (not parents) starting Thursday will be able to pick up lunch and next-day breakfast from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. each day at a CPS school. It’s open to all kids in the community (birth up to 18), he added, noting it will be run like the summer lunch program. He also mentioned the backpack program will continue (CPS will communicate the pickup dates for that in the near future).
Lakeview will be coordinating a similar meal program for kids, a district spokesman noted.
Local efforts to “flatten the curve” were recapped during the press conference. Besides schools, facilities such as the Columbus Family YMCA, the Columbus Public Library and its bookmobile, the Aquatic Center and Community Center have been closed until further notice.
Bulkley noted library materials that are due back during the closure period can be returned at no extra cost once the facility opens again and that any lessons that were paid for and scheduled to take place at the Aquatic Center can be refunded.
As far as Columbus Area Transit, the mayor said patrons will need to be screened before they can schedule a ride. Home meal deliveries and care facilities deliveries will continue, he said.
Columbus Area Transit, along with City Hall and the police and fire departments, have been classified as “controlled access facilities” by the City of Columbus. Each of these sites has a sign on the door that prompts visitors to call the number listed and be screened before entering.
The hospital has also been proactive. On Monday, CCH suspended all hospital-sponsored events, support groups, health and wellness events and community events held at the hospital until further notice. It also constricted building access to route traffic through the emergency room entrance and is limiting visitors.
“That’s what we’re focusing on right now – keeping our patients safe, keeping our staff safe that take care of them,” Hansen said.
The CCH leader later said it’s possible a very significant part of the local population could be affected by COVID-19. Of those cases, he said, about 94% of those people would likely be “just fine,” while approximately 4% could require hospitalization and about 1-2% could need ICU care.
“That’s still a big number in a catchment area of about 53,000 people or so,” Hansen said. “So social distancing and doing the things the president, the governor and the state are saying we need to do in terms of social distancing is extremely important because we can lower that curve and burden on our health care system.”
Everyone on hand talked about the Unified Command concept. East-Central entered into it this week with area partners, including the Columbus Fire Department, Columbus/Platte County Emergency Management, Region 44 Emergency Management and Colfax County Emergency Management. Joint objectives will be established and carried out, Bulkley noted, so that the incident commanders can collectively respond to situations as they arise. In this instance, it’s COVID-19.
Bulkley and other community leaders praised East-Central for its leadership and efforts throughout the last month, reiterating they would all work collaboratively to keep the community informed.
“Speaking with one voice,” Hansen said, reiterating Bulkley’s sentiment. “I think that’s very important.”
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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