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Two days before closing a New York City public school building where a student tested positive for the coronavirus, Department of Education officials sent out an internal memo advising staff not to report anyone with potential symptoms to the city Department of Health, THE CITY has learned.
The memo from schools headquarters to staff systemwide went out Tuesday morning, days after Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed that three public school teachers who’d been in a coronavirus hot zone had to be tested. At the same time, his health commissioner issued an order mandating that educators, first responders and city health care workers deemed at risk must be tested.
The memo lists a number of precautions to stem the spread of the virus, but explicitly makes clear the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene — the command center for tracking the virus in New York City — should not be contacted.
“At the moment, there is no reason for any school to call DOHMH to report potential or confirmed cases. DOHMH is receiving information from about positive test results strictly from laboratories. We can support our colleagues at DOHMH by keeping their phones clear to speak with laboratories.”
Mid-morning Thursday, more than 24 hours after THE CITY asked about the logic of this approach, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesperson Stephanie Buhle wrote in an email, “Our guidance is abundantly clear: if you’re sick, stay home. Physicians and public health professionals guide when testing is appropriate.”
An hour earlier, de Blasio announced that two schools co-located in a South Bronx building — the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology and South Bronx Preparatory — were shut down temporarily “due to a student’s self-confirmed positive case of COVID-19,” the designation for the coronavirus illness.
The statement notes that the Department of Education will “completely disinfect the building” and that the Health Department will “trace close contacts of this individual [student] to recommend quarantine and testing if necessary.” The two schools enroll a total of more than 1,300 students in grades six through 12.
Subsequently, schools officials tweeted, “At this time there is no indication that students in these schools need to be tested” but advised them to stay in their homes until further notice. The school building was shut down for 24 hours following a protocol issued last week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
City Hall has not yet released any details on the circumstances that led to the student being tested for COVID-19, but during a news conference Thursday afternoon, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza confirmed the protocol advising staff not to notify DOHMH of suspected cases, explaining that the DOE did not want to “inundate” the Health Department.
“There is no directive. There’s guidance. With increasing numbers of people coming out, what we don’t want to do is inundate the Department of Health with these cases,” the chancellor said. “We’re going to put structure in place, rather than have random people calling” the department of health.
But de Blasio emphasized the need to get information to health officials as soon as possible, and vowed the city will “work on that.”
“There is still a reality that we have to figure out how to get that information to the right people the second it comes in,” he said. “It’s fair to say and we’ll work on that wherever a report comes up. We’ll need to get to it right away.”
Schools officials said there was no indication any other student in these schools had tested positive, and during the press conference Carranza said none of the students there have pre-existing conditions that would make them especially vulnerable to infection.
De Blasio said the school was to be thoroughly cleaned Thursday and that the Health Department will track down close contacts of the student and get them tested if necessary. The two schools enroll a total of more than 1,300 students in grades six through 12.
The mayor emphasized that he has no plans to close the school system but will respond on a case-by-case basis if students or staff test positive.
Full Closure ‘Not Gonna Happen’
The building where the two schools are housed is located in the South Bronx on East 145th Street, between the Patterson and Mott Haven public housing developments.
Also closed today is the Sunshine day care center nearby, said Ariel Veloz, who had to rush to the center to pick up his 2-year-old son Jacob.
“I was shocked, because I thought it was a prank, I thought it was a joke,” said Veloz, who saw a commotion when he got there: “Right now they are cleaning the school, they are cleaning the tables and the hallways.”
Sunshine was not immediately available for comment.
Veloz works as a bus driver for the public schools and has been monitoring the situation through his supervisor. “I asked my dispatch what’s going to happen if all the schools close down,” he recounted. “And she said, ‘Well that’s not gonna happen.’ ”
Many Ill Untested
As the virus spread globally over the last two weeks, three public school teachers who’d visited regions in Italy where the illness was concentrated came down with symptoms potentially signaling coronavirus.
One was able to get a test right away, which came up negative. Two others were tested after THE CITY reported that one of the teachers had been turned away from testing. Both turned up negative after they received testing Friday.
The number of individuals who’ve tested positive in New York City is now 62, up from 20 just four days ago. The number actually infected is likely far higher given strict limits on who is eligible to be tested, resulting from a shortage of test kits.
Accounts from individuals with potential infections being turned away after requesting testing have proliferated.
Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot last week issued an order mandating that all educators, first responders and city health care workers must be tested if they’re found by the city health department to be at risk of infecting others.
But the mayor’s Office of Labor Relations also instructed agencies not to track down and report employees with possible symptoms, stating that an investigation would only be triggered after an employee registered positive for COVID-19.
On Thursday a spokesperson for the teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, did not respond to questions about the union’s position on the DOE’s handling of the virus outbreak.
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