(TNS) — As many Michigan schools transition back to the classroom, close attention is being paid to where COVID-19 outbreaks are happening.
To feed that appetite for more information, the state plans to begin giving parents and the general public information about specific schools that have had outbreaks in a weekly report that begins on Monday, Sept. 14.
The increased transparency is an upgrade to the state’s recent approach of releasing more general information about outbreaks - which it defines as an instance in which two or more cases are linked by a place and time - broken down by eight different regions.
Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said the increased reporting transparency came out of recognition of the public’s interest in where outbreaks have happened, while Gov. Gretchen Whitmer expressed the desire to provide “real time” reporting for parents and community members to see what’s happening locally.
By the time some outbreaks are reported to the state, however, they might be more than a week old.
Local health departments have been providing MDHHS with weekly situation reports that are due to the state on Thursdays, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Public Information Officer Lynn Sutfin said.
The department recently amended that reporting structure, requesting that health departments provide names and addresses of schools with outbreaks and the number of cases involved. Those reported outbreaks are then presented in weekly reports by the state on Monday afternoon, leaving a potential lag time in the roundup of statewide outbreaks.
While the general public might not know the complete extent of all outbreaks in the state until well after they have been reported, Sutfin said health departments continue to work closely with schools to make sure anyone who is at risk of exposure is notified and the proper procedures are in place.
“Public notification would be done prior to the weekly report appearing on the website if a health department determined that all individuals who were potentially exposed could not be accounted for and therefore contacted,” Sutfin said.
“If there was an outbreak that required public notification, that decision would be made at the local health department level.”
That’s key thing for the public to keep in mind when analyzing those reports, Washtenaw County Health Department Spokeswoman Susan Ringler-Cerniglia said, acknowledging the balance between accommodating people’s urgency and desire for transparency and helping those directly impacted by outbreaks.
“Any time we’re dealing with data, for the most part, there’s a lag,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. "By the time people are seeing that information it could potentially be different on the ground.
“For the people that are directly involved in the situation – if you attend the school or you’re a family member – is the state report the way you’re going to find out about a cluster? Hopefully not. For people in communities who are watching and assessing and using that data to look at trends, yes there is some value in that, but we have to be careful in interpreting (the data) as real time risk, versus information about what’s happening.”
The more detailed reports from the state come as a result of a coalition of Michigan news organizations calling on Whitmer and other leaders to improve transparency in coronavirus reporting at schools and universities by providing information about school-related COVID-19 outbreaks on a consistent ongoing basis.
When asked whether the state is still considering providing more frequent, real time updates on school outbreaks, MDHHS Public Information Officer Bob Wheaton said such an effort would be too time consuming.
“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,” Wheaton said.
While state reporting and transparency is a good thing, Michigan Education Association Director of Public Affairs Doug Pratt said the more pressing need is for information to flow at the local level in order to keep students, educators and families safe.
Districts that have chosen to offer in-person instruction need to communicate with parents and employees about health threats, Pratt said. To make immediate safety decisions, the information needs to be proactively shared at the local level by both school districts and local public health authorities, he said.
“Put another way, if I can get an email heads up about a head lice outbreak in my kid’s class, then information about COVID threats can and must be communicated immediately at the local level,” Pratt said.
School districts have been working with local health departments to determine when it is necessary to share information about outbreaks, particularly when a situation might require alerting the greater public.
Using examples of recent COVID-19 exposures of members on athletic teams, Ringler-Cerniglia said the health department follows up with individuals who test positive and anyone they may have had close contact with, but they typically doesn’t specify locations of positive tests due to privacy reasons, unless there’s known public exposure.
Normally, an athletic team is a connected group that is easy to contact directly if there is a COVID-19 exposure, but concern for the greater public could be at play, depending on the specific situation after contact tracing has taken place, she said.
“Let’s say a baseball team had a fundraiser at the local Kroger or Walmart and they were giving out hugs. We can’t identify all of the people that came into that store, so that would be an instance where we would say, ‘yes we have to alert the public of this possible exposure,’” she said.
When there was an outbreak on one of its athletic teams, Chelsea School District Superintendent Julie Helber said the district opted to send out a joint communication with the health department to inform the public.
“We decided to send a joint message because it was determined that the spread was not linked to our athletic program, rather, social activity taking place in the community with our teens,” Helber said. “We wanted our families to be aware of these events and exercise caution when approving their child’s participation.”
In Livingston County, the health department released information to the public about an uptick in COVID-19 cases among teenagers, which eventually caused Hartland Consolidated Schools to move all its high school classes to remote learning.
While close contacts among those who were diagnosed were contacted by health officials, Livingston County Health Department Spokeswoman Natasha Radke said there was a general public benefit to knowing about the surge in cases among teens.
“In that case, we put out more general information to remind the community, and especially that age group, to continue to follow social distancing measures and take precautions where they can,” Radke said.
With more widespread concern about transparency regarding COVID-19, Ringler-Cerniglia said health departments and the state have moved toward more broad notifications than they would have used in the past, based on risk.
That doesn’t mean health departments are inexperienced in the process of informing relevant individuals, she said.
In a “typical year,” the Washtenaw County Health Department sees about 500 cases of reportable illness it will follow up on. The public won’t hear about those cases unless it is determined there’s a need based on possible exposure or a need to alert people to the risk.
“Traditionally, a lot of public health really goes on behind the scenes,” she said. "When public health is working well and we’re doing our job well, nobody knows it.
“That’s been a really challenging thing with COVID is that people have this expectation that knowing and understanding where each and every case in a community is is going to help them make decisions.”
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