Whitmer orders Michigan schools to tell the public about COVID cases

The public may soon know more quickly when there are coronavirus cases in Michigan schools. (Shutterstock)

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an order Friday that requires Michigan schools to notify the public when there are coronavirus cases among students or staff. Though light on detail, it appears to suggest more immediate, real-time public reporting on COVID-19 outbreaks at schools.  

The order doesn’t specify how quickly news of school infections must be published, or in what form, leaving those details instead to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. It also does not set a time requirement, though a Whitmer spokesperson said more details would come before Oct. 5, when the order is to take effect.

But it follows remarks Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon made to Bridge Michigan late Wednesday that the Whitmer administration is “actively considering” requiring K-12 schools to post notice of COVID outbreaks as soon as they’re confirmed by local health departments. 

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Transparency advocates who have pressured the Whitmer administration to more rapidly alert the public to COVID infections saw Friday’s announcement as a positive step. 

“I always felt schools would be transparent, but now we know they have to be transparent,” said Barb Flis, founder of Parent Action for Healthy Kids, which works with parents and educators around the state on health and other issues.

“Efficient and streamlined” information builds trust among parents that schools are closely monitoring data to make smart decisions about their children’s health during a pandemic.

“Keeping parents informed — that’s the key,” Flis said.

 

The order requires public and private schools to “publish information about any cases of a probable or confirmed COVID-19 positive individual present on school property or at a school function during the period of infection.”

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Friday’s order “recognizes the important role that schools play in providing information about instances of COVID-19 in their communities.”

The administration had faced criticism for initially declining to identify schools with COVID-19 outbreaks as students returned to K-12 schools and college campuses for the fall semester. Following reporting by Bridge Michigan and other news outlets, and a letter from a coalition of news and government transparency advocates, MDHHS began to list schools with outbreaks earlier in September, but only on a weekly basis. 

The coalition, known as the Michigan School-Related COVID Outbreak Transparency Coalition, which includes Bridge Michigan, BridgeDetroit and The Center for Michigan, among dozens of groups, then pressed the state to notify families and their communities more immediately. Critics noted that weekly announcements can mean significant delays between the time an infection is first confirmed and the public is notified of an outbreak. 

State officials balked at being required to post more real-time infection info, saying that MDHHS as well as local health departments across the state already have too many demands on their time during the pandemic. 

Public health workers have labored “enormously hard” for six months to get information to those at risk as quickly as possible, a job the state considers “effectively a life-or-death matter,” Gordon said Wednesday. 

“We are deeply focused on improving the rate at which we [investigate and notify people who have potentially been exposed],” he said. “It’s really hard work, and at the same time, we recognize and honor the importance of transparency and sharing as much information as we can with the public.”

As of Sept. 17, there were new or ongoing coronavirus outbreaks in 28 K-12 schools, according to the weekly MDHHS report released Monday. 

State health officials define a COVID-19 outbreak as two or more cases with a link by place and time indicating a shared exposure outside of a household. Friday’s order appears to require reporting by schools of all COVID-19 cases, not just outbreaks of two or more cases.

Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director for the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, told Bridge that school leaders “believe transparency is essential in navigating this [pandemic],” and that schools will work closely with local health departments to assure the accuracy of information disseminated to the public.

State Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, called Friday’s order a “step in the right direction.” 

At a hearing Wednesday before a legislative committee, Hall questioned Gordon and state epidemiologist  Sarah Lyon-Callo about why the state couldn’t release more timely school-related case information.

The key now, Hall told Bridge late Friday, will be in making sure that information that will help families make decisions about school, will be released “at least multiple times a week” if not daily.

Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager of the Michigan Press Association, which was also part of the transparency coalition, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the order. 

“I want to see the policy when it’s done,” she said, “but the acknowledgement [of the problem] is good news.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Comments

middle of the mit
Mon, 09/28/2020 - 1:40am

It is a shame that the news organizations had to push the Governor to push the Schools of the State to inform the State of the infections that are in their own districts.

Shame on you school districts for not doing this on your own, for those who use and attend your schools.

Shame on the Press for demanding this of the Government without also calling out PUBLICLY, the schools that REFUSED to or couldn't report in a timely manner.

YES! I will FULLY WELL ADMIT, I am an anti conservative. But there are only a few who know WHY I am an anti conservative. I used to be one.............then they started lying for fun and giggles. And that started hurting people. NOW you know why! I wasn't gigglin'.

And now? They can't stand for the things that W Bush was pushing!! The only principles they have? How much mammon can I get?

That's it. In a nut shell. There are no ifs. There are no buts. That's it. MONEY.

Ask them. They aren't afraid to tell ya!

I just wonder what they are going to do......when they realize..............all the money they think they have.............still wasn't enough to leave them in power...............and all that State land up here that they looooooved to ride and hunt on.......when it's put back in wealthy peoples hands..........and they don't have access to it anymore.....................what are they going to think about that then?

If only people had the foresight to understand how the Public land ended up in Public hands...Taxes that lumber companies didn't want to pay after they reaped what they sowed.....and now business owners who don't live where their business is want a vote there. But when reminded that would allow downstaters a vote where they don't live?..........

If you only knew the contradictory statements from people I hear on a daily basis..........

You might understand why I come here to try to let it out.