State launches new weekly data on COVID-19 school outbreaks

By: Mary Beth Almond | C&G Newspapers | Published October 20, 2020

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METRO DETROIT — As students begin to transition to in-person learning, Michigan families can now see if there are COVID-19 outbreaks within their schools, colleges and universities.

The state launched a new source of information on its website for reporting COVID-19 outbreak information by school building Sept. 14.

“The main reason to do this was data transparency to provide parents, students, staff and community members information about what’s happening in their community, particularly their schools,” said Lynn Sutfin, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The data on COVID-19 outbreaks is being collected from the 45 health departments across the state weekly and is reported on the state’s website weekly, on Mondays by 3 p.m.

“An outbreak is defined as two or more cases that are linked by space and time. What we mean by that is, during the public health investigation that the local health department did, the link that they determined was that the virus spread at that school,” Sutfin explained.

The outbreak information includes not only the name and location of the K-12 school, college or university, but also the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases at that school and if the cases involved staff, students or both.

“If your school is listed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not following policies and procedures,” Sutfin explained. “This is a contagious virus, and all it takes is one individual to drop their guard and happen to be contagious at that time, and you can have an outbreak.”

The website lists both new and ongoing outbreaks, along with the date the information was added. New outbreaks are ones that were first identified during the current reporting week, while ongoing outbreaks have been identified in previous weeks but have had at least one new associated case reported to the local health department in the last 28 days.

Officials said outbreaks will be removed from the list when there are no new confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases identified after 28 days have passed since the last known school exposure from a case.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive and chief deputy for health, said parents and students should know that, if their school is listed, their local health department and school are already investigating.

“Based on that investigation, people are contacted individually if they were possibly exposed to COVID-19 at school,” Khaldun said in a statement. “Michigan schools are working hard to maintain a safe environment while also providing quality education.”

Many factors, including the lack of ability to conduct effective contact tracing in certain settings, may result in underreporting of outbreaks, according to Sutfin, who said students or staff exposed to COVID-19 outside the school building and are not thought to have spread the virus in the school due to quarantine or self-isolation are not included in the data.

Sutfin said the school outbreak information does not provide a complete picture of school outbreaks in Michigan, and the absence of identified outbreaks in a school does not mean it is not experiencing an outbreak.

“Just because a school is not listed doesn’t mean that perhaps there is not COVID-19 in that school. Perhaps they have not linked it to an outbreak yet, or perhaps there is just one case, or it’s not spreading in the school. They may hear about somebody who was out and they have COVID-19 or something like that, and they aren’t listed on the website. The reason is because perhaps it’s not something that is transferring within the school grounds and within the building. It may be somebody who knew about it early enough and was able to self-isolate and not spread the virus at the school,” Sutfin said.

State officials encourage people to continue to protect themselves from the virus by wearing a mask that covers the mouth and nose, social distancing by maintaining a distance of 6 feet, frequent handwashing, and following capacity restrictions of social gatherings.  

“We don’t want folks to let their guard down. Just because your school isn’t listed doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be wearing masks, social distancing, staying home if you are ill. Those are very, very important to continue practicing those safety practices right because those are the things that we have available to help slow and stop the spread of this virus,” Sutfin said.

Michiganders who are sick or have symptoms can get tested at numerous testing sites across the state. Information around this outbreak is changing rapidly.

The school outbreak data can be found at www.Michigan.gov/Coronavirus by scrolling to the bottom of the page to “Where We Stand with COVID-19” and clicking the “See Cumulative Data” button, then clicking “School-Related Outbreak Reporting.”

For more information, call the state at (517) 241-2112.