Definition dilemma among Texas agencies creates confusion for COVID-19 close contacts

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — In the nearly three hours the state’s infectious disease task force met to discuss COVID-19 vaccine distribution and the state’s role in responding to the pandemic, a Central Texas doctor pointed out a difficulty over definitions.

Specifically, Dr. Dorothy Overman, the public health authority for Comal County, highlighted the definition of “close contact” is defined differently by the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Texas Education Agency.

“I just don’t know if there is going to be some work done on that, to try to come together on what the definition is,” she said in the virtual meeting Monday.

Texas DSHS defines close contact as being within about six feet. The CDC’s definition states close contact is anyone within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes. The Texas Education Agency’s direction (on page nine of its public health guidance) indicates the definition is “evolving with our understanding of COVID-19, and individual scenarios should be determined by an appropriate public health agency.”

Generally, TEA defines close contact as being directly exposed (like being coughed on) or being within six feet “for a largely uninterrupted or sustained extended contact period throughout the course of a day,” however, additional factors including symptoms, ventilation, presence of dividers and whether or not the two individuals are wearing masks, “may affect this determination.”

Overman indicated she was worried schools would not send their students home to quarantine after being exposed, because they were wearing masks during the possible exposure, due to different interpretations of the guidance.

“Here’s someone who, according to our DSHS guidelines and CDC guidelines, should be home in 14 days of quarantine, but after school they’re going to be going to play football with no mask on,” she said, explaining “we’re definitely already seeing lots of cases.”

DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt acknowledged the discrepancies.

“We’re aware that the definitions are somewhat different,” Hellerstedt said. “It certainly creates a dilemma for us.”

Hellerstedt said because schools are making extra arrangements for changes to ventilation, social distancing, mask-wearing and other steps to lower the risk of COVID-19 spread, the classroom situation may be different than that of the general public.

“That’s a different environment than just sort of a general public environment where those other conditions don’t exist,” Hellerstedt said. “And so, it may be reasonable to entertain different definitions.”

Overman said the different definitions could put more strain on educators and lead to more classroom case confusion.

“…it’s going to lead to a lot of cases, and I’m just, I’m very concerned about it, and I just want something more to be done about it,” she said.

“I hear you,” Hellerstedt responded. “I acknowledge that is a dilemma.”

Neither DSHS or TEA responded to an inquiry about whether the agencies have plans in the works to reconcile the definition differences.

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