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.