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8 new COVID outbreaks in Michigan schools, colleges. State won’t name them

Michigan reported eight new outbreaks of COVID 19 in schools and colleges Monday, but still isn’t telling the public where those outbreaks are.

The new outbreaks, discovered between Aug. 20 and 27, included three at colleges and five in K-12 schools. 

That brings the current tally to 14 new and ongoing outbreaks in schools and colleges, compared to 10 a week earlier.

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The data are part of a new weekly report on outbreaks in various settings. In the week of Aug. 20-27, there were 93 new outbreaks in settings ranging from bars to offices to social gatherings, up from 70 new outbreaks in the previous report.

Whether those figures represent a troubling increase in the spread of the potentially deadly virus is impossible to say; the state isn’t releasing the number of confirmed coronavirus cases connected to each of those outbreaks.

Michigan health officials define an outbreak as two or more cases connected by place and time to an exposure outside a household.  

Lynn Sutfin, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, told Bridge on Monday that the number of cases associated with outbreaks is not currently included in the situation report that is submitted to the state by local health departments.

In Mid-August, Michigan acknowledged at least 14 COVID-19 outbreaks had occurred in the past or were ongoing at schools and universities, but state and local state health officials and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer resisted calls to release details, such as the name of schools where the coronavirus has spread. 

After a Bridge report on the policy, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive, told Bridge Michigan it would release the names of schools where outbreaks are occurring after its reporting system is tweaked to require local health departments to provide that information to the state. It’s not clear when that change will be made.

Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown told Bridge by email Monday there was  "no additional information to share at this point outside of what MDHHS has previously provided."

Friday, Michigan’s largest teachers union demanded more transparency from school districts about COVID-19 cases, amid confusion and frustration with state health laws that err on the side of privacy even amid a pandemic.

The report of outbreaks in schools – and the lack of transparency about the size and location of those outbreaks – comes as parents of about 1.5 million Michigan schoolchildren are making decisions about whether to send their children back into classrooms, or continue remote learning.

According to the updated state report Monday, there is one new outbreak in a school in Region 1 (an eight-county region in mid-Michigan including Ingham County); two in Region 2 North (Oakland, Macomb and St. Clair counties); one in Region 1 South (Wayne, Washtenaw and Monroe); and one in Region 7 (the northern Lower Peninsula). In addition to the five new outbreaks, there are three ongoing outbreaks in Michigan K-12 schools, making a total of eight in K-12 schools.

There are two newly confirmed COVID outbreaks in colleges in Region 6 ( a swath of central Michigan that includes Central Michigan University, where there has been a recent spike in infections, and Ferris State University; and one in Region 8 (the Upper Peninsula). There are also three ongoing outbreaks on college campuses, all in Region 1, which includes Michigan State University, for a total of six new and ongoing outbreaks.

Also of note in the report: 83 new or ongoing coronavirus outbreaks in long-term care facilities, 34 in agricultural settings, which include processing plants; and 30 outbreaks traced to social gatherings. 

Though the Whitmer administration released under pressure the names of individual nursing homes where there were coronavirus cases in April, it has not identified outbreaks at other long-term care facilities.

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