Examining How Social Gatherings Off-Campus Led To The Closure Of A Private High School In Reno

Nov 19, 2020

Limiting social gatherings has been challenging as COVID fatigue and social isolation set in during the pandemic. As KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck reports, public health measures aren’t being followed by everyone.

The chain-link fence leading into the parking lot of Bishop Manogue Catholic High School is locked. That’s because, at the beginning of the month, Manogue officials announced that school would be going remote until the end of November, after they identified several off-campus gatherings over the Halloween weekend, including a homecoming party for seniors. Afterwards, the school reported seven cases of COVID-19, and 147 students were potentially exposed.

Dr. Trudy Larson is the Dean of the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a member of the governor’s medical advisory team. She explained that COVID-19 can also impact people who didn’t even attend the party.

“I think that's the critical piece here, is that person or persons who were infected, probably didn’t have any symptoms at all, and they’re still infectious, and so they may have infected folks there, that then take it home,” Larson said.

The “Do it yourself” homecoming party took place inside a gated neighborhood at the home of a Reno-based orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Michael Ries.

Ries confirmed over email to KUNR that he hosted the gathering at his home. He said temperature checks were taken at the door, there were fewer than 50 guests, and people adhered to social distancing and face coverings.

Ries sent the following statement to KUNR:

“We did have a social gathering at our residence on October 30th of less [sic] than 50 people and followed the COVID guidelines endorsed by Governor Sisolak and the Washoe County Health Department, including the requirements of temperature checks at the door, adherence to social distancing and face coverings, not allowing access to anyone with a positive COVID test result or any COVID symptoms, and parental approval for all minors to attend[.]”

But, photos of the event tell a different story.

More than a dozen photos posted publicly on social media show party-goers in formalwear and Halloween attire, as many as nine huddled together, outdoors and indoors, without a mask in sight.

Then and now, state guidelines for gatherings at private residences are capped at 25 people for outdoor events, and 10 for indoors.

A guest at the party corroborated what KUNR saw on social media. They did not want to go on the record out of fear of retaliation.

Missing social interactions can be tough, and that’s not lost on Larson.

“Do I miss seeing my kids and my grandkids? I do. But because I'm very committed to not being a transmitter and I, myself, do not want to get infected, I'm willing to take that sacrifice,” Larson said.

For gatherings like the homecoming dance, Larson called it “bad judgment.”

“I think that’s part of that, giving yourself an excuse, to do something like that, just this one time. So, it was a mistake and it resulted in a massive shutdown of Manogue. That's a huge punishment for students,” Larson said.

At this point, more than 10 public schools in Washoe County are on full remote learning until the end of the month. And Washoe County School District officials are considering going to full distance learning starting next month.

Reno City Councilmember Naomi Duerr said she’s sympathetic to how hard it’s been on everyone to remain socially isolated and the toll it takes on mental health. But she said gatherings can put schools at risk.

“I mean, they have to keep their kids safe and they have to keep themselves safe: people that work in schools, a bus driver, a school aid of some kind, not just teachers. But I mean, to me, they’re our frontline as well,” Duerr said.

Social gatherings also make it hard for health officials to mitigate the spread of infections in the community because contact tracing can’t keep up. That’s what the county’s health district officer Kevin Dick said on a recent press call.

“I think what we have here, with COVID-19, is a wildfire that’s happening. Contact tracing is sending us out to put out individual trees that are on fire, and that does not help us to control a wildfire. Contact tracing, it is feasible when we have knocked the disease rates down to a level that we can quickly identify where a case is occurring and respond to suppress that outbreak,” Dick said.

Washoe continues to break daily COVID-19 case records and hospitalizations are nearing capacity. Recently, Renown Regional Medical Center, in downtown Reno, has started treating COVID-19 patients in the makeshift care site that was set up in the parking garage. Despite the current surge, Gov. Steve Sisolak remains reluctant to impose tighter restrictions, instead, relying heavily on individuals to exercise personal responsibility.

“The vast majority of Nevadans are doing a good job. It’s the outliers that aren’t doing a good job, and they’re the ones that are going to own this. They’re going to have to live with the fatalities and the infections that we have,” Sisolak said.

Sisolak gave Nevadans until Tuesday, and if cases don’t start to decline, he said he’s considering additional measures. With the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, Washoe health officials are imploring residents to avoid celebrating with people outside of their household. They want to avoid a repeat of the increase in cases and hospitalizations seen after Halloween.

As a note of disclosure, Bishop Manogue Catholic High School provides financial support to KUNR.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

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