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Officials failed to contact CPS student at school where aide got coronavirus — then she developed a fever and cough

The mother of the student at Vaughn Occupational High School said she was forced to reach out to city officials after not hearing from them for several days. No one in the family has been tested.

Chicago Department of Public Health workers set up a tent outside Vaughn Occupational High School.
Chicago Department of Public Health workers set up a tent outside Vaughn Occupational High School for conducting health test amid coronavirus fears, Tuesday morning, March 10, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Noemi Gomez, like most other parents at Vaughn Occupational High School, was concerned when she received a robocall and email Friday evening saying an aide at the school tested positive for the coronavirus.

The messages said outreach would start the next day so that every student at the Northwest Side special education school, including Gomez’s daughter, could be monitored twice daily by public health officials.

So Gomez waited. And waited. And waited.

“I was waiting Saturday. I was waiting Sunday. I was waiting on Monday,” Gomez said. “They never called me. They never monitored my daughter.”

Between Friday and early Monday morning, Gomez’s daughter, an 18-year-old with a mild intellectual disability, developed a fever and a cough, which public health officials have identified as two symptoms of the new coronavirus, COVID-19.

But nobody with the Chicago Department of Public Health or Chicago Public Schools contacted the family until Gomez called them on Tuesday afternoon, she said. And nobody in the family, including Gomez’s daughter, had been tested for COVID-19 by late Wednesday afternoon.

As the coronavirus spreads, concerns are growing over the possibility of more lapses like the one that left Gomez and her family fending for themselves for five days. A student falling through the cracks at a special education school with 212 kids prompts questions about CPS’ and CDPH’s response if another school in the 350,000-student district is impacted.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton acknowledged the lapse, saying in a statement that “the district is grateful that the family alerted us of the omission and the CDPH has been in touch with the family.”

Bolton said individual schools and the CPS central office maintain separate student lists. She said the district typically relies on the school lists having the most up-to-date information, but said CPS takes responsibility for the error.

“This is an important lesson learned and as we move forward, we will take additional steps to cross reference lists of students,” Bolton said.

Gomez thinks the school roster might not have been updated when her daughter transferred to Vaughn from Lane Tech High School in January. She only reached out to health officials because a friend in a Latina mothers group urged her to do so when she found out Gomez’s daughter was sick and hadn’t been contacted.

“To tell you the truth, I was so, so scared and sad,” Gomez said of the long wait. “And I was very mad at the beginning, so very upset. Because how did they miss my daughter like that?”

Gomez wasn’t only concerned for her daughter. She was worried about herself, too, because she’s heard that those with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk. Gomez has diabetes, and her 5-year-old son has autism.

In the days since her daughter got sick, Gomez herself has developed a cough, though no fever. The whole family has self-isolated at home on a doctor’s recommendation. Gomez said the medical professionals she’s talked to told her to stay home, not to go to an emergency room or doctor’s office.

“My heart was beating so fast,” Gomez said, tearing up. “I was very concerned, like, ‘My God, please help me.’ And I was crossing my fingers, please, I just want it to be something else like the flu or something else.”

Gomez and other Vaughn families have been consulting with Dr. Howard Ehrman, a former assistant commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, who has been critical of the city and state’s response to the virus. Ehrman advised Gomez to stay at home, fearing that patients with symptoms who break quarantine to get tested could potentially spread the virus.

“If they get on a bus or a train or even in their car, then number one, that lowers their own resistance, particularly if it’s not a nice day outside,” Ehrman said. “Secondly, if they have COVID-19, they’re going to spread it everywhere.

“Somebody from the public health department of Chicago or Illinois has to go to their house and test them.”

Elizabeth Lalasz, a nurse at Stroger Hospital, also urged for tests to be done at home so those who are sick don’t have to leave and potentially spread the virus.

“If these children or their families become ill, they will be asked to return to Vaughn to get the tests, but many don’t have cars,” Lalasz said. “Do we have them take public transportation? Of course not. Public health workers should come to their homes to test them.”

Many Vaughn students have been tested in a tent outside the school rather than at home or a medical facility. Dr. Jennifer Layden, deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said Tuesday that certain measures were being taken with Vaughn students to keep them comfortable, given their complex challenges and needs.

“We’re trying to make it as convenient as possible for kids and their families,” Layden said. “Testing is an easy procedure, but it can be scary sometimes to go to a healthcare setting and not necessary if you don’t have significant symptoms.”

Andrew Buchanan, a CDPH spokesman, said he couldn’t immediately comment on specifics about Gomez and her family or the agency’s capacity to test potential patients at their homes.

In a statement, he held that officials continue to observe members of the school community and are conducting testing for coronavirus “when appropriate.”

“So far, no Vaughn students have tested positive for the virus and neither have any additional faculty and staff, beyond the original case,” he said. “We appreciate the ongoing cooperation of Vaughn families and the broader school community as this process continues.”

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health did not respond to messages.

Ehrman, who served as Will County’s chief medical officer during the West African Ebola virus epidemic of the 2010s, noted that community outreach has been central to bolstering public health in Chicago. That included nurses from Jane Addams’ Hull House doing house calls as early as the 1890s, he said.

“This is destroying a 125-year tradition of public health,” said Ehrman. “This is a fundamental issue of why Chicago and Cook County are in no position to deal with this.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman