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Madison County Health Officials Felt Pressured By Prosecutor To Change School Quarantine Protocols

desks in a classroom
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The Madison County Health Commissioner says health officials felt pressured by the county's prosecutor to change COVID-19 protocols in schools.

Madison County Prosecutor Nicholas Adkins said in late September that schools should only require a quarantine if students have actual physical contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.

This interpretation of state law differs from state and CDC guidelines that recommend people quarantine after being within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.

However, Madison County Health Commissioner Chris Cook said the county’s board of health felt pressured to abide by the prosecutor's interpretation of state law, and it issued new guidelines to schools.

Because the prosecutor is the health department's legal counsel, Cook said the board felt they had no choice but to change its guidelines to reflect the prosecutor's interpretation.

Madison County Public Health then issued a statement with its new guidelines on September 22.

“Although not supported by any existing federal, state, or local infectious disease policy or research, according to legal interpretation provided by the Madison County Prosecutor, only physical contact with a case will result in required quarantine,” the statement said. “Direct contact with a case (less than 6 feet for at least 15 cumulative minutes in a 24-hour period), but no physical contact, will result in recommended quarantine.”

Prosecutor Adkins did not reply to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Cook said in an email that prior to this interpretation and change, the county-operated under state and CDC guidelines, and that they would have continued to do so.

“Had we not received the alternative interpretation from the prosecutor, we would still use this as our guideline for quarantine following exposure to someone diagnosed with COVID-19 or who tests positive for the virus,” the commissioner said.

Cook said that he communicated with more than 15 other local health departments in the region and had yet to find one that is being advised by their legal counsel to interpret Ohio quarantine laws in the manner the Madison County Prosecutor is interpreting them. Cook disagrees with this interpretation.

“Concerning quarantine, direct contact should not be limited to physical contact with someone who is diagnosed with a disease,” he said. “As Health Commissioner, I do not agree with the interpretation the Prosecutor provided. This is not my personal disagreement with Senate Bill 22 and the legislature's modification of public health law in Ohio. This is my disagreement about the interpretation of the law and how it affects my duty to protect the health of the population.”

Cook added that based on his knowledge of other health departments, the resulting practical application of quarantine based on the prosecutor's interpretation is likely unique to Madison County. He said he is concerned about the potential consequences of the board following that interpretation.

“I do not think we have fully realized the implications of this type of interpretation of quarantine law,” Cook said. “This does not just apply to [COVID-19 disease]. This would apply to many other dangerous pathogens and diseases such as anthrax, tuberculosis, plague, smallpox, and Ebola.”

Schools are obligated by Ohio law to exclude from school and activities those students who are under required isolation and those students who are under required quarantine.

The news of Madison County’s unique interpretation of state law comes as one of the county’s school districts, Jonathan Alder Local Schools in Plain City, saw a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases compared to last year. The number of COVID cases the district had in the first three weeks of this school year was over 60% of the number they had in the entire previous year.

Additionally, on September 9, Jonathan Alder’s COVID Dashboard reported 50 active cases among students and staff. The district then implemented a mask mandate on September 15, which it repealed a month later, even though the district's superintendent said in an email release on October 12 that the number of active cases had dropped to two.

"My request during the September Board meeting was to get our absentee rate under control and keep our kids in school," Superintendent Gary Chapman said. "We have currently succeeded in lowering that rate, and the Board has voted to remove the mandatory mask mandate effective Wednesday, October 13. We will continue to strongly recommend and encourage all staff and students to wear masks. Masks are still required to be worn on buses per the federal CDC mandate."

As of Wednesday, after eight days without the mask mandate, the dashboard stated that active cases have increased to 12.

Chapman also said that the number of students and staff out of school on quarantine due to COVID exposure dropped from 121 at the start of the mask mandate to 19 by October 11. Data collected by WOSU showed that on September 9, a few days before the mandate began, the number of students and staff on quarantine was as high as 221. Jonathan Alder Local Schools has just over 2,600 students and staff.