The mood to start the first day of the new school year at Campbell County High School could best be described as joyous.
Students were clearly excited to see each other, even to the exclusion of most other considerations as local public schools began in-person education again during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The school’s main entrance was buzzing with students shortly after 7 a.m. Although the first bell wouldn’t sound for more than 40 minutes, students were content to sit outside, waiting for friends they hadn’t seen in months and chatting with those who’d already arrived.
Face masks could be seen, but few students wore them and few seemed bothered by it. Social distancing also wasn’t closely followed in front of the school, as hugs were a common greeting between friends.
“I missed you!” one student said as he ran up to a friend and nearly tackled him.
The friend swore, but with a smile, spinning around from the force of the running hug.
Their joy was real and electric, and it was in stark contrast to just how much the pandemic had upended their lives last spring when it forced the abrupt closure of schools across the country, including in the Campbell County School District.
Carl Burns and Lucas Hill, both 16-year-old juniors, sat on the steps near the main entrance before school started.
At one point, Burns waved casually as a group of three girls in a pickup drove by and shouted out, “Carl! Hi, Carl!”
Hill tempered his excitement with acknowledgement that things still felt weird.
“Everyone wearing masks, the two lunches, there’s dividers at lunch,” he said about the public health protocol waiting for the teens inside. “I’m thinking, like, someone’s going to get sick and they’re going to shut down school or something.”
Hill said he wasn’t necessarily worried about that outcome and seemed resigned to it.
“I just think it’s going to happen,” he said.
Neither of the young men were looking forward to the possibility.
“I hate online school so much,” Burns said. “I like hands-on learning and being able to, like, grasp it right there. When it’s through a screen, it doesn’t click.”
To avoid the possibility, they both conceded that the safety measures are necessary and the least students could do to keep themselves in school.
But those aren’t necessarily universally shared opinions. Hill mentioned that he’d seen other students posting on their Snapchat stories opposition to having dividers at lunch tables.
“They’re saying that they’re not ready for it,” he said. “They think it’s dumb.”
The social aspect of high school was apparent, not only seen in the celebratory nature of the morning but also from the students’ recollections of a school year cut short and a summer altered by the pandemic.
“I’m excited to see all the people that I didn’t really kick it with during school,” Burns said. “Because I kicked it with people, like, everyday, but it was with, like, 10 people because a bunch of my friends were quarantined and I couldn’t see them.”
The new COVID-19 restrictions raised concerns that people wouldn’t comply and disruptions would ensue.
“I feel like a lot of kids won’t listen to the teachers when it comes to masks and stuff,” Hill said. “Already with kids posting about saying they don’t like it, it’s just going to cause a lot of problems.”
Possible confirmation of Hill’s concerns was heard outside CCHS as students started to file into the school around 7:45 a.m., when one boy could clearly be heard from the mass of students exclaim he wouldn’t wear a mask.
In many ways, the pandemic’s new regulations has been a great equalizer. Upperclassmen were no better prepared for what the day and year would bring than jittery first-day freshmen.
“It’s going to be different, I know that, but I don’t know what different is going to be,” Burns said.
Hill picked up where Burns left off without skipping a beat.
“I looked inside and they’ve got hand sanitizer all over the front, so I wonder what the classrooms are going to look like,” he said.
Students said the beginning of the day felt relatively normal, except for certain little reminders that they were starting school amid a pandemic.
“It pretty much felt normal, except for grabbing my mask,” Hill said.
Freshman Payge Riedesel, 14, said her mom had to remind her about a face covering.
“My mask?” Riedesel said as she tilted her head up questioningly, as she may have when she heard her mother ask. “I was, like, that’s odd to say. Why is she saying a mask?”
Then she remembered: Masks are a new school supply, as standard as paper and pencils.
The mask was understandably something Ridesel would prefer to leave at home if she had her druthers. She has asthma and wearing one makes it hard to breathe, she said.
Another incoming freshman, Zane Neal, 15, also described his reluctance to wear a mask because of asthma.
“With this mask on, there’s a lot of these stairs and stuff, and when I go up the stairs, I can’t breathe,” Neal said.
He seemed confident about the safeguards put in place by the school to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, though at times seeming to question whether masks were necessary because “if you sneeze in them, it’s going to go right through it.”
But he couldn’t help but notice the crowd gathered around the main entrance before school started.
“What’s occupying my thoughts is all these people surrounding me and no one is really wearing a mask,” Neal said. “It kind of bothers me.”
After a pause, he added, “Like I said earlier, I have asthma, so maybe these people have asthma, too,” in a tone that suggested maybe he was giving his new classmates too much credit.
Megan Roberts, a 14-year-old freshman, stood off to the side of the crowd, alone.
“I’m new here, so I don’t know anybody,” Roberts said.
She just moved to Gillette from Buffalo and her thoughts weren’t that occupied by the coronavirus as on her first day of school.
“The pandemic and this whole thing doesn’t bother me that much,” she said. “It’s just another thing that our world has to deal with, but that’s OK, it’ll be over sooner than we know it.”
What has her preoccupied is navigating the social wilderness that is a new school in a new town where she only knows “like, three people.”
The percentage of her thoughts taken up by the usual first-day-of-school worries was “pretty high,” she said. “Like 80% or 90%.”
She said her one goal for the day was relatively simple, but its simplicity didn’t ease her nerves: “Get to all my classes and not get humiliated somehow.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic rolling into the upcoming flu season, the combination of the viruses may further complicate what has already been a chaotic year for health care systems.
While the severity of the season cannot be predicted at this point, Campbell County has its flu vaccines on the way and does not expect a shortage this year, said Campbell County Public Health Executive Director Jane Glaser.
“As soon as we get our vaccine this year, we are going to begin opening that up (to the public),” Glaser said.
Because of the pandemic, Public Health will do flu clinics slightly differently this year.
The plan is for the agency to offer drive-thru or drive-up vaccination options while also using its mobile clinic, which was used earlier this summer to offer immunizations for school-age children, Glaser said.
“We are just having to change things a little bit because we don’t want to encourage anybody standing in line,” she said.
Arrangements also have been made with the Campbell County School District to provide flu shots to students by way of the Vaccinations for Influenza Prevention Project as early as Oct. 26, she said.
The VIP Project offers vaccinations for students while at school, with parental permission, in an effort to get more children vaccinated, keep them from missing school and save parents the trouble of scheduling time off work to make vaccination appointments.
At the state level, the Wyoming Department of Health said it is going to make a stronger push than usual to make flu shots accessible and to encourage residents to get vaccinated this year, said Wyoming Department of Health Spokeswoman Kim Deti.
“What we are going to do is make a stronger effort than usual to promote flu vaccines,” Deti said.
The national picture
Last flu season in Campbell County ended up being a fairly average year in terms of cases. It was not the best year by the numbers, but far from the worst, Glaser said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the U.S. between Oct. 1, 2019, and April 4, 2020, there were as many as 56 million flu illnesses and between 410,000 and 740,000 hospitalizations from the flu.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, any potential increase in hospitalizations is a concern in parts of the country, as is a possible increased demand for testing.
With flu symptoms often presenting similar to those of the novel coronavirus, it is possible that more symptomatic patients will show up to medical facilities requiring a greater testing capacity to determine whether they have the flu or COVID-19.
“It’s definitely going to be a factor because many of these symptoms are quite similar,” Deti said.
The CDC developed a test that can detect A and B type seasonal flu viruses as well as the virus that causes COVID-19. The tests, called the Flu SC2 Multiplex Assay, will help public health officials better understand how the flu and COVID-19 are spreading and is already being distributed to U.S. public health laboratories, according to the CDC.
Wyoming has received the dual test and plans to begin implementing it as soon as next week, Deti said.
“Sometimes people may think, ‘Oh, it’s just the flu,’” Deti said. “If it can test for the flu and COVID at the same time and it determines that you are positive for COVID-19, we want to know that.”
Being able to differentiate between flu and COVID-19 cases can help a patient’s treatment as well as the state’s efforts to contact trace and better gauge how prevalent the virus is in Wyoming, Deti said.
According to the CDC, it is possible to have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time. However, the effects of combined illness, as well as how likely it is to happen, is still being studied.
Flu shots and immunizations
Based on the trajectory of the pandemic to this point, with the fall and winter seasons approaching, the CDC expects that the coronavirus and flu will spread simultaneously this flu season. Because of that increased viral circulation, the CDC recommends a flu vaccine for everybody age 6 months and older.
A nationwide, downward trend in immunizations caused by the ongoing pandemic was noticed by the CDC toward the beginning of summer after months of shut-downs and social distancing regulations kept people away from hospitals and clinics, where vaccines are commonly administered. The decrease in immunizations may put children who are overdue on their vaccinations at a higher risk for certain otherwise-preventable diseases, according to the CDC.
That same trend is true in Wyoming.
Data from the Wyoming Immunization Registry shows that 42% fewer immunizations had been administered this April in comparison to April of last year, the Wyoming Department of Health reports. That number improved slightly in May, where there was a 28% decrease in the number of vaccines administered compared to May 2019.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services authorized state-licensed pharmacists in all 50 states to administer vaccines to anyone between the ages of 3 and 18, an effort that hopes to make immunizations more accessible while preventing COVID-19 restrictions from making people more susceptible to other illnesses.
“Today’s action means easier access to lifesaving vaccines for our children, as we seek to ensure immunization rates remain high during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in a press release Wednesday.
In Wyoming, pharmacies are typically allowed to administer immunizations to anyone age 7 and older, making the new national public health order a way to broaden the options for children in the state between ages 3 and 7, said Hillary Knapp, a pharmacist at Medical Hill Pharmacy in Gillette.
“I think it would be more accessible because a pharmacist is always available to give one, where you may need appointments to get them from doctors,” Knapp said.
Knapp said her pharmacy received its flu vaccine Wednesday. Although October is usually when the vaccine is most popular, she said it is available now at Medical Hill Pharmacy.
A case for optimism
Because the flu is seasonal in the fall and winter months, its timeline is opposite in the Southern Hemisphere. So, in other parts of the world the flu season runs roughly from March through August. Through mid-August, the World Health Organization reports flu cases have been registered at “lower levels than expected” in those countries nearing the end of their flu seasons.
While that information may be hopeful, it comes with caveats.
The pandemic may have affected the ability to report or test for the flu and the preventative measures being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 may also be curbing the spread of the flu, according to the World Health Organization.
It is unclear whether a similar effect will take place this year, or in Campbell County particularly. There is reason to believe that social distancing guidelines may help lessen the impact of the upcoming flu season.
“These recommendations that we give for COVID are the same that we’ve been given to help prevent influenza for years,” Glaser said.
The flu vaccine does not protect against COVID-19, but because of its ability to protect against the flu and flu-related hospitalizations, the CDC puts extra emphasis on getting a shot this year.
“If this is the first year you want to do it, this is a good year to protect yourself against influenza since we do have COVID and we don’t have any vaccines against COVID at this time,” Glaser said.