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Whitmer’s ‘real-time’ school coronavirus outbreak data could be a week old

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called Friday for “real-time” release of information about coronavirus outbreaks at Michigan schools to inform parents and communities.

It turns out, though, that “real-time” disclosure will come weekly, and the outbreaks themselves may be older than that.

“We are working to make sure we [get] more real-time reporting and greater ability for parents and community members to see what's happening locally,” Whitmer said in a Friday radio interview on WJR-AM. 

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Whitmer had answered “absolutely” when asked whether she believes schools should report outbreaks daily, as a coalition of more than 30 Michigan news and transparency groups (including Bridge and the Center for Michigan) requested in a letter to the governor last week.

But when Bridge asked what “real-time” meant, Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said the governor “was not agreeing or suggesting that there will be daily reporting, but was responding to the need to have timely and accurate information reported on school outbreaks.”

“My understanding from the [Michigan Department of Health and Human Services] is that the plan at this time is still for weekly reports to be made available,” Brown said.

The debate comes at a time when outbreaks in Michigan schools are rising. There were 11 new or ongoing outbreaks in K-12 schools as of Sept. 3, before the majority of Michigan school districts had reopened, according to data released Tuesday by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The delay in reporting of outbreaks makes the information less useful to the public and increases the chance of inaccurate information spreading through social media. But it is a step toward transparency in the reporting of coronavirus cases among Michigan’s children. 

The weekly reports, which don’t include college outbreaks, are planned at 3 p.m. Mondays beginning Sept. 14. The reports will include data from both public and private K-12 schools.

Michigan joins at least two other states, Colorado and North Carolina, in identifying schools with COVID-19 outbreaks, while others including Oklahoma and Maine do not.

Still, coronavirus outbreaks in Michigan schools could be ongoing for a  week or more before they are publicly acknowledged by the state, under a reporting system being established by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Some delay in notification is inevitable because of the time it takes to get COVID-19 test results and conduct contact tracing to determine whether the virus is spreading in a school.

Then, reports from local health departments are sent to the state just once a week — by 3 p.m. Thursdays, according to Lynn Sutfin, a state health spokesperson.

The delay between the state receiving local health department reports of outbreaks on Thursdays, and public release on Mondays, could leave the public in the dark for at least four days —  and much longer if contact tracing or testing results are delayed.

For example, if a local health department determines there is an outbreak in a high school on Friday, that outbreak would not be included in a report to the state for six days until the next report is submitted the following Thursday. 

In that scenario, with the state releasing that outbreak information to the public the following Monday, public announcement of the outbreak would be made 10 days after the outbreak was discovered. 

Even so, public health departments would be working during that time to track people directly connected to the outbreak to encourage them to quarantine and get tested. 

And while the state is collecting and releasing data, there’s nothing that prevents a local school district from making a more public notification or even moving classes online, as officials did last month at Hartland High School in Livingston County. 

Disclosure of outbreaks can help stem their spread because contract tracing seldom reaches all those who come into contact with infected people, said Steve Hale, health officer for the Central Michigan District Health Department.

Hale’s department used a news release to disclose an outbreak linked to the return of students to Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant. His department has issued daily updates on COVID case counts connected to the campus, and issued a health emergency declaration that lowered the number of people who could gather in indoor settings from 25 to 10.

Hale told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday he believes that publicly disclosing outbreaks helped slow the spread of the potentially deadly virus on campus, and might do the same for parents of K-12 students.

“One of our key roles in public health is education,” Hale said. 

Dr. Peter Gulick, an infectious disease expert at Michigan State University, told Bridge he believes public disclosure of school outbreaks is better than the alternative — the public “picking up bits and pieces of information on social media that may not be accurate.”

Still, Gulick said he isn’t concerned about a lag time between health officials discovering a coronavirus outbreak and public disclosure by the state, because most people who have been in prolonged, close contact with the source of an outbreak will know about the outbreak from health officials. 

School and local health officials say they have protocols in place to inform families of students who have been in close contact with an infected student. 

But how wide the net of families being informed of the outbreak is left up to the discretion of schools and local health authorities.

For now, the state is sticking with weekly reports.

“Requiring daily reporting of information would be burdensome to local health departments, taking them away from investigations of COVID-19 cases, and likely not provide any actionable information,” MDHHS’ Sutfin wrote in an email to Bridge Michigan last week.

Data released Tuesday showed there were 10 new coronavirus outbreaks in Michigan K-12 schools and colleges in the past week, bringing the total of new and ongoing outbreaks in schools and colleges to 22; the previous week, there were 14; the week before that, 10.

As with earlier outbreaks, the state did not release locations, but noted there were three new outbreaks in K-12 schools between Aug. 28 and Sept. 3 (the most recent data available), and eight ongoing outbreaks. There were seven new outbreaks on college campuses during that same time period, and four ongoing.

On Aug. 27 and 28, Bridge Michigan filed requests through the Freedom of Information Act for the location of existing school outbreaks, as well as any communications between Health and Human services officials and affected schools about the outbreaks.

The law requires five days for a response, but allows agencies to extend responses by 10 days. Friday, state officials informed Bridge they wouldn’t respond to the requests until Sept. 21 — a lag of nearly a month for information that was dated even when Bridge sought it. 

Bridge also sought similar information about school outbreaks from a dozen local health departments through the FOIA law. Half of them extended their reply by ten days to gather the information.

In the meantime, state officials say the names of schools and the number of cases in those outbreaks will be disclosed Sept. 14.

“Like so many things we've had to build up the process for this,” Whitmer said during the WJR radio interview with host Kevin Dietz.

“We're working with local departments of public health and districts to make sure that we can give that kind of real-time information. The last thing we want to do is do it haphazardly and create a lot of alarm where we don't have the apparatus built.

“As a parent with one child in public schools and one on the campus here in Michigan I know that I want data on my kids and I know every parent in Michigan wants to get more of that too.”

Bridge staff reporters Riley Beggin and Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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