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Michigan news coalition urges Whitmer to release more on COVID-19 outbreaks

More than 30 Michigan news and government transparency organizations delivered a letter (below) to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday urging more regular reporting of COVID outbreaks at schools.

The group, calling itself the Michigan School-Related COVID Outbreak Transparency Coalition, wants Whitmer to require school districts to notify communities within 24 hours of an outbreak; increase the frequency of statewide reporting data and require universities and colleges to release more information.

“It’s vital that parents and the community have real-time access to this information,” said Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager of the Michigan Press Association, which represents news outlets statewide and signed the letter.

The request comes after the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services this week launched weekly reporting of school-related outbreaks, which Bridge Michigan and other news outlets have reported are often incomplete and delayed.

The state indicated that 11 Michigan K-12 schools and 13 colleges have new or ongoing outbreaks totaling more than 1,400 cases, most of which are at colleges. Officials acknowledge that is likely an undercount.

Whitmer released the weekly information following efforts by media outlets statewide for more public reporting as schools resume classes. Previously the state released weekly reports on the number of outbreaks in schools, but did not identify the schools or number of people infected.

Whitmer this month told WJR radio she supports “real-time” release of COVID outbreak information, but her staff quickly walked that back and contended anything more than weekly reports would be onerous to local health agencies.

On Wednesday, Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown told Bridge, “This administration is committed to both protecting students and staff and providing accurate and timely information about COVID-19 in our schools. 

“We take this seriously and will review the follow-up letter,” she wrote in an email.

The letter follows.

Dear Governor Whitmer:

We implore you and your administration to quickly do much more to inform students, families, educators and local communities of school-related COVID outbreaks.

On Monday, September 14, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services launched weekly reporting of school-related COVID outbreaks, including the names of individual schools and number of cases.

As a public health and transparency tool, this weekly MDHHS reporting is woefully inadequate for the following reasons:

LACK OF TIMELINESS: COVID doesn’t spread weekly. It can spread far more rapidly in group environments (such as schools) – as you, state health officials, and medical experts have warned many times. By the time MDHHS releases its weekly report each Monday afternoon, individual school outbreaks in the report are 4-10 days old, as numerous statewide media outlets have documented. “The obvious concern is we are going to have children and staff in a small school area passing this illness around and we won’t even know,” Laura Ashton, president of the Eastern Elementary PTO told the Traverse City Record-Eagle this week. As parent Lisa Scott told the Record-Eagle, “Ten days late doesn’t really help you if your kid has been exposed.”

INCOMPLETE CONTACT TRACING: While local schools and health departments say they are quickly conducting contact tracing and notifying impacted students and educators, the Michigan State Police acknowledged in a public statement this week that “many factors, including the lack of ability to conduct effective contact tracing in certain settings, may result in underreporting of outbreaks.” In school settings, it seems impossible to fully contact trace a COVID-infected student or educator’s movements and interactions. Only timely, transparent, and school-district-wide notification assures students, parents, and educators have adequate public information to protect their families.

LACK OF SCHOOL TRANSPARENCY: Despite the shortcomings and delays of contact tracing, local schools impacted by COVID are not making prominent announcements to their wider communities. The MDHHS outbreak report on Monday, September 14 listed 11 K-12 schools with new or ongoing COVID outbreaks. Only one of those prominently posted its outbreak information on its school/school district web site, according to a Michigan Press Association review conducted the morning of Tuesday, September 15. In contrast, 13 of 15 colleges and universities in Monday’s MDHHS outbreak report provide some level of prominent and transparent COVID dashboards, many of them updated daily, (though college and university data details are inconsistent as discussed below).

YOUR HIGHER STANDARDS FOR BUSINESSES SHOULD BE APPLIED TO SCHOOLS: In Executive Order 2020-175, dated September 4, you require “workplace safeguards” for “all businesses or operations that require their employees to leave homes or residences for work.” These safeguards include requiring businesses to, within 24 hours of a confirmed COVID case, “notify any co-workers, contractors, or suppliers who may have come into contact with the person with a confirmed case.” In the school environment, any student or educator with COVID may have come into contact with many others – an impact that is potentially quickly multiplied across entire communities. Why are you not requiring schools to rapidly and publicly notify their entire communities of confirmed COVID cases?

Governor, you still have the opportunity to get school COVID transparency right – in useful ways statewide newspapers and other media can amplify to protect public health. But the window is closing. As Bridge Michigan reported this week, 86 percent of school districts and charter schools began this school year by offering at least some face-to-face instruction. As the Detroit Free Press reported this week, MSU Dr. Peter Gulick, one of Michigan’s leading infectious disease experts, expects that autumn will bring another spike in COVID cases. “We have to be transparent,” Dr. Gulick told the Free Press. “We have to make sure everybody hears about these things.” 

In response to this coalition’s first plea for school COVID outbreak transparency, your Communications Director Zack Pohl responded on September 4: “It is a priority of the administration to protect the health and safety of our children, families, and communities and that means giving people the information they need to make the best decision for their individual circumstances.”

Governor, for your administration to live up to those words, we urge you to rapidly:

1) Require K-12 schools and school districts to immediately and publicly notify their entire communities –via public statements prominently posted on their websites and in releases to all local media – within 24 hours of confirming a COVID outbreak. (Just as you require businesses to rapidly inform their employees, contractors and suppliers.)

2) Increase MDHHS school COVID outbreak reporting data, by named school, to at least two or three times per week to make the report at least somewhat useful to students, families, educators and local communities in making their personal choices in COVID monitoring, testing, and other personal protection behaviors.

3) Require universities and colleges to consistently report four metrics: daily positive tests, cumulative positive tests, test positivity rates, and total number of tests on a daily and cumulative basis.

Thank you for your consideration.

Working in partnership toward the health of Michiganders,

The Michigan School-Related COVID Outbreak Transparency Coalition

Bill Speer, Publisher
Alpena News

Bradley Massman, Editor
Big Rapids Pioneer

Stephen Henderson, Project Executive

John Bebow, President and CEO
Bridge Michigan and the Center for Michigan

Chris Huckle, Publisher
Cadillac News

Kelley Root, Executive Editor
Crain’s Detroit Business

Teresa Brandell, Publisher
Crawford County Avalanche

Peter Bhatia, Editor and Vice President
Detroit Free Press

Gary Miles, Editor and Publisher
The Detroit News

Julie Stafford, Publisher
(Greenville) Daily News

John Minnis, Publisher
Grosse Pointe News

Eric Hamp, Publisher
Houghton Lake Resorter and Roscommon County Herald News

Eric Young, Editor
Huron Daily Tribune

Tanya Whitaker, Editor
The (Dundee) Independent

Stephanie Angel, Executive Editor
Lansing State Journal, Livingston Daily Press & Argus,
Battle Creek Enquirer, Port Huron Times-Herald

John Elchert, Publisher
Leelanau Enterprise

Mike Reitz, Executive Vice President
Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Jeff Payne, Managing Editor
Macomb Daily News

Lisa McGraw, Vice President
Michigan Coalition for Open Government

James Tarrant, Executive Director
Michigan Press Association

Kate Hessling, Editor
Midland Daily News

John Hiner, Vice President of Content

Craig Barnt, Publisher and Editor
Pinconning Journal

Larry Sobczak, Publisher and Editor
Record-Washington Township

Wes Mauer, Publisher
St. Ignace News

Dirk Milliman, Publisher
Three Rivers Commercial News

Paul Heidbreder, Publisher
Nate Payne, Editor
Traverse City Record-Eagle

James Brown, Publisher
Yale Expositor

Wes Smith, Publisher
View Newspaper Group

Amber Arellano,  Executive Director
Education Trust-Midwest/MI

Beth Konrad, President
Detroit Society of Professional Journalists

Vince Duffy, News Director
Michigan Radio

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