Westfield's COVID-19 cases declined by about 50% in February, the health officer said.

WESTFIELD, NJ — The town’s Board of Health on Monday faced a barrage of questions from parents seeking clarity on the local health department’s role in rolling out in-person public school instruction amid a significant decline in Westfield coronavirus cases.

Westfield Regional Health Officer Megan Avallone said that while the state has changed its guidance on school reopening to reflect recent changes from the CDC, the New Jersey Health Department has yet to release that new guidance pending an internal legal review.

Sign Up for Kenilworth Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

“We anticipate it to be released, hopefully, next week,” Avallone said at the meeting held by Zoom. “So right now, no changes, but … we don’t even know what changes might be upcoming in the school new guidance.”

CDC guidance on COVID-19 discusses strategies “for in-person instruction and remaining open through an integrated package of mitigation components.” This guidance includes discussion of testing and vaccinations for teachers and school staff among other measures.

Avallone, however, said she must base her advice to school districts on the state Health Department’s guidance. This includes on topics such as the delivery of lunch at schools during COVID-19, something Westfield does not do.

“If schools are going to offer lunch, they can do so with the current guidance, but they have to figure out how to keep kids 6 feet apart, and that can be challenging in a school,” Avallone said.

Board members relayed questions submitted by the public as they were typed into a chat box visible to board members, but not the public. Responding, Avallone explained that the guidance she provides to school districts while not a mandate must be strongly considered.

“While technically it is guidance, it is firm guidance,” she said. “Ultimately, I guess a school could decide to disregard the guidance, but that would never be endorsed by me.”

Asked about cases connected to the schools, Avallone referenced the disproportionate number of young people in Westfield infected with the virus in recent month, statistics conveyed in reports from Mayor Shelley Brindle.

“I can tell you that school-age children are still a large percentage of the cases that we are getting on a weekly basis,” Avallone said.

For January, Brindle reported 116 teenagers represented 24% of people in Westfield newly infected with COVID-19 — the most highly impacted age group of the town’s 483 COVID cases that month. February's figures are anticipated Tuesday evening.

The discussion of school reopening comes after what Avallone said was an estimated 50% decline in coronavirus cases in Westfield in February.

“We saw a decrease in cases throughout all of the eight towns, especially Westfield,” she said, referring to the other municipalities her regional health department services.

People from those eight towns are also seeking the health department’s help in finding vaccines.

“We’re getting a large volume of calls,” Avallone said. “People are really at the end of their rope trying to get their vaccine.”

Citing state figures, she said that just over two million people eligible to get the shots are preregistered with the state to do so.

“Hopefully, as more vaccines become approved, as more providers come online, we will be able to ramp up vaccination,” Avallone said, who added that the 10% increase in shots administered statewide last week “still nowhere meets the demand.”

Email Matt Kadosh at mkadosh@tapinto.net | Twitter: @MattKadosh