Michigan has 14 school-related coronavirus outbreaks. State won’t say where.

The state knows where there are coronavirus cases in Michigan schools and colleges. They aren’t telling the public. (Shutterstock)

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.

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.”

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.”

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Comments

Anonymous
Wed, 08/19/2020 - 8:41pm

This is wrong. Just tell us.

LMAO
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 12:37pm

But then how can we force all the kids back into schools?

Anonymous
Wed, 08/19/2020 - 8:43pm

How can you contact trace and protect others?

TransParent
Wed, 08/19/2020 - 8:45pm

Our children will be learning online, but if not, we would want to know if our school has an outbreak.

Marlene Augst
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 6:33am

Whitmer has NEVER been transparent since taking office nor has she ANY ability to compromise or negotiate. Each and every time she doesn't get her way she walks. She FAILED in the budget process and placed Michigan taxpayers in BILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN DEBT because she didn't get her gas tax. With regard to the virus, Mid and Northern Michigan had NO HEALTH CRISES. Even when we opened up we had no crises. SHE created the financial crises, LOOK AT THE DATA of States who closed versus those who didn't. She never saved anyone, just financially destroyed them.

Matt G.
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 11:47am

You mean Whitmer asked for a gas tax because no other taxes would be considered by the anti-tax GOP? You seem to forget that they've been cutting taxes at every turn "to attract business". Meanwhile, our infrastructure is crumbling and businesses don't want to locate here unless we give them massive tax breaks because the roads are total trash. It's almost like businesses would want to come here on their own if we had excellent infrastructure and quality of life metrics, but some people don't want to invest in the future and only want to complain.

LOOK AT THE DATA? I'm not sure what data you've looked at, but based on the rest of your post I'm guessing it didn't come from a reliable source. Feel free to link your sources.

Concerned
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 12:12pm

Hmm, THE DATA on this other Bridge article says Michigan is one of the few states where it's relatively safe to open most schools. I wonder if that has anything to do with Whitmer's shutdown orders? I'm sure it doesn't in your mind, because you seem to have made up your mind regardless of THE DATA WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE LOOKING AT. Is it magic that Michigan was one of the first states to take decisive action and now we're one of the states in the best shape?

https://www.bridgemi.com/talent-education/data-show-most-michigan-school...

Also, mid and northern michigan have had plenty of outbreaks, not to mention travelers. You seem to be rather misinformed. Here's some data to look at that shows all the current Michigan hotspots are in the Upper Peninsula. Imagine that. You think there haven't been any crises in mid and Northern Michigan, but you're wrong.

In fact right now in Menominee county, a county with about 25,000 people, there have been an average of 8 cases reported a day for the last 2 weeks. That's triple the rate of infection in Wayne county over the same period.

So, when you LOOK AT THE DATA, it looks like you are incorrect.
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/michigan-coronavirus-cases.html

jan d
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 9:28am

We could get back on track so much sooner if the governor would quit playing politics and operate as a governor should

Marvin
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 9:36am

Also, when a student at a college whose residence is elsewhere tests positive, the health department does not consider/report that as a positive in the county where the college is - so if you live in a college town, all the students from elsewhere who test positive are not reported in your county.

KM
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 2:07pm

That's not accurate, at least not at all colleges. Northern Michigan University is reporting those students who test positive and who live on campus as Marquette County cases, instead of reporting in their hometown. If student commutes, they are counted in the county in which they live.

R.L.
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 10:16am

I love it. They will say which nursing homes are reporting deaths but not a school What's up with that. Transparency look it up. I define it as being able to see right through it. I think I can see through it but don't tell me let me guess. peace R.L.

LMAO
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 12:36pm

I wonder what Shirkey and Chatfield think about this? Crickets.

Aburd realities
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 10:43am

"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."

Our children will do school online, but they are running cross country. We want to know if a competing school has positive covid19 cases. Otherwise, just cancel the sports also.

It seems obvious that schools cannot open as they are super vectors who will infect each other, teachers, staff, parents, relatives and the greater community. Why are we as a country insisting on being so stupid? Why can't we know the facts? We talk about gossip, but if a school shuts down for two weeks because of positive cases, no one really knows who tested positive.

On the same note, why can't we see Trump's tax returns? Give us the facts before we are forced to choose what our children will do or in whom we have to place our trust as president who will make life and death decisions on our behalf.

yep!
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 10:59am

Does anyone know why the GOP legislature isn't demanding transparency?

Paul Jordan
Sun, 08/23/2020 - 10:04am

Answer: Because then the state would have to reveal data on outbreaks in businesses. as well.

Rose
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 11:05am

Of course schools are affected. Two reasons: 1. We live in a state populated by incredibly irresponsible and selfish people who refuse to wear masks for ridiculous reasons. They take sociopathic pleasure in spreading this PLAGUE to those who are trying to be careful. 2. There is little enforcement of masking & social distancing regulations. With sheriffs all over the state proudly, publicly, and blatantly refusing to enforce masking rules, and police departments not bothering to issue tickets, there is no hope.

Take Dearborn, for example. They have been logging 17 to 25 new case per day for weeks and weeks. This is WAY too high for a community of that size. Last week it was 61 new cases! Why? Massive weddings are being held in people's back yards with no masking or social,distancing (videos of these are posted on social media). There are constant gatherings like graduation parties, a weekly farm market, movie nights, and business openings. The city continues to issue permits for block parties and for garage sales. No one is being ticketed for violating mask and social distancing regulations with the exception of one huge banquet hall. You can have all the rules to keep people safe that you like, but it is crystal clear that people will not comply unless there are consequences.

Sadly, the only way people MAY start to take the plague seriously and start to act responsibly is that now children and young adults are begin affected. Too bad it takes this kind of thing for people to maybe change their behavior. The plague sure was not taken seriously and was dismissed when it was "only older people" who were affected, as I have read on on this and other sites many, many times. How sickening.

Anonymous
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 12:41pm

"The city continues to issue permits for block parties and for garage sales." Do you have proof of that?

Kelly Tackett
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 1:56pm

I would believe it would be in the best interest of students, parents, staff and communities for schools to release information regarding covid outbreaks, in fact, it should be mandatory.

Amy Carey
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 2:28pm

How are there 14 cases in schools across the state when the schools have not opened yet? Are these just staff members that tested positive? Because, if so, we are not off to a great start, and if not, where did the numbers come from?

Amanda
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 2:56pm

A teacher from Kansas has been compiling K-12 school cases nationwide, from new articles or submissions from parents who have been informed. As of my writing this she has 32 reported cases in Michigan. I’m not sure whether these 14 reported outbreaks are on her list, but it does give you some info: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/e/2PACX-1vQSD9mm5HTXhxAiHabZA6BPU...

PLombard
Thu, 08/20/2020 - 5:56pm

Is there a FOIA exemption for Michigan's HHS?

A Yooper
Fri, 08/21/2020 - 11:08am

I'm a big boy.
I can sure as Hell handle the truth!!!!
This is an outrage dammit.

Anonymous
Fri, 08/21/2020 - 12:46pm

Jonathan Oosting asked the state superintendent about reporting transparency on Off the Record, but the answer was weak, something to the effect that perhaps at some point there will be a centralized reporting system. As parents with elementary students, we got letters from school saying "A case(s) of head-lice or strep-throat has been reported in your child's classroom. Look for this... or do this...." It was never a big deal and I don't recall usually learning the identity of the affected child. Of course, who knows today with social media nastiness. Covid presents more complications.

Anonymous
Sun, 08/23/2020 - 6:10pm

If we are suppose to identify our personal medical info in order to not wear a mask, then they sure as hell should be held accountable for letting people know where said outbreaks are.