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There are at least 14 current COVID-19 outbreaks at Michigan K-12 schools and colleges, Bridge Michigan has learned. But the state health department will not say where they are located.
That lack of transparency, coming as families are preparing to send children to school during a pandemic and a day after Michigan State University moved classes online out of fear of outbreaks, makes it more difficult for parents to know if their children’s schools have confirmed infections.
Also unclear is how many COVID-19 cases are tied to the 14 outbreaks. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said it would not release that information, either. Outbreaks are generally defined as two or more cases with a common source of exposure.
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The department is “gathering counts” of 14 COVID outbreaks in K-12 schools and universities, spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin told Bridge Michigan Wednesday.
She declined to name the schools, nor say whether they are public or private, and noted that the state generally has not named other businesses or entities, except for nursing homes, in reporting on outbreaks.
Sutfin said the state’s refusal to identify the districts does not hinder families from knowing about case counts within their own districts.
“If there are cases or outbreaks, the school will notify parents,” she said.
Sutfin sent a follow-up email to Bridge after this article was published, noting that health departments investigate a variety of outbreaks. "Common public health practice," she said, is to focus on those who were in close contact with the affected person to notify them of the risk of infection.
She said schools also will work with local health officials to determine if the health department should make a more public notification.
The state’s refusal to release school names associated with the 14 outbreaks was a surprise to education officials Bridge contacted Wednesday.
“I don’t know what to say — I don’t know why they wouldn’t release that information,” said Robert McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, a statewide education advocacy organization.
“I’d think a parent would want to know.”
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Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, told Bridge he was unaware that the state was not releasing locations of coronavirus outbreaks in schools and colleges, and would need to know more about it to comment.
The Whitmer administration’s refusal to name schools is reminiscent of its reluctance earlier this year to release the names of nursing homes that had reported confirmed cases of COVID-19. Even when it finally released the names in June — months after the March arrival of the virus in Michigan and under increasing pressure from families and lawmakers — the data was incomplete.
News of 14 school-related COVID-19 outbreaks comes as many of the state’s 1.5 million children in K-12 schools return to classrooms and college students return to campus. Several states where schools have already opened have already experienced highly publicized outbreaks.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Notre Dame, in South Bend, Indiana, both quickly reverted to online-only classes this week after coronavirus cases skyrocketed in the first few weeks of classes.
Michigan health care providers and laboratories are required to report confirmed COVID-19 cases to local health departments. Schools — public and private — must cooperate with health officials and contact tracing efforts, said Sutfin, the MDHHS spokesperson.
Confirmed coronavirus cases appear in the state’s daily updates of coronavirus cases, broken down by county.
But while local health departments, as well as schools and colleges, have the authority to identify schools that report COVID-19 cases, they are not required to do so, said Dr. Jennifer Morse, medical director for three health districts covering 19 counties in north and central Michigan.
Nor have they historically done so, she said.
Naming specific schools — whether it’s about COVID or flu or pertussis cases — can trigger nothing more than gossip and guesswork about who was sick, said Linda Vail, health officer in Ingham County.
“You have to remember that the whole point is to find people who are potentially exposed,” she said.
Vail and other Ingham health officials did publicly identify East Lansing’s Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub in June as a link to several COVID-19 cases. But the officials reasoned that, because contact tracing among strangers in a crowded bar was near-impossible, a public announcement alerted those who might have been exposed to watch for symptoms and possibly get tested for COVID-19 and quarantine.
Ultimately, 192 cases were linked to the bar, she said.
In contrast, a school can usually alert families whose children might have been exposed with letters or calls without making a public announcement. That helps protect the privacy of the person affected, Vail said.
“If it’s necessary to make a public notification, we do it. If it’s not, we don’t,” she said.
In Oakland County, health officials have been ironing out reporting protocols on COVID-19 throughout the summer, said Calandra Anderson, a public health nurse overseeing back-to-school efforts there.
If a school reports a case that then is verified, public health will begin contact tracing, Anderson said.
“If the person was in volleyball practice, we will work with the athletic director, or whoever is the closest to the situation so … that we can quarantine folks that need to be quarantined,” she said.
But when it comes to publicly releasing names of schools that report COVID — that hasn’t been decided yet, she said. It may depend on the size of an outbreak and the school’s response, she said.
A recent statewide poll conducted by EPIC-MRA for Bridge found that 51 percent of Michigan residents surveyed said they doubted their local schools would be safe to reopen in September.
Tessa Rayment-Gruber, mother of a first-grader in East Lansing, said she’d want to know if there were confirmed coronavirus cases in her daughter’s school building.
“We’re starting online but I have friends who have kids going into school buildings in Metro Detroit,” Rayment-Gruber said. “If they’re putting their children in those situations, they should be fully informed.”