Michigan to identify K-12 schools with coronavirus outbreaks Sept. 14

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The state of Michigan gives schools discretion on the level at which they notify families of a COVID-19 outbreak. The state will begin listing schools with two or more linked COVID-19 cases starting Sept. 14. (Shutterstock)

Michigan families will know if there are COVID-19 outbreaks at their K-12 schools beginning Sept. 14 — the first full week of school following Labor Day, a state spokeswoman told Bridge Tuesday evening.

Details were still being hammered out as officials finalized processes to pass the information from the state’s schools and local health departments to the state, said Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The list will include not only the name and location of the K-12 school, but also the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases at that school.

The news leaves several questions unanswered, including why MDHHS is not including the same information for Michigan colleges and universities, several of which have been hit hard by cases since opening in August. It’s also unclear why school outbreaks can’t be shared with the public as they are confirmed by health officials, rather than announced in weekly updates.

Sutfin told Bridge the report will be updated each week, likely Monday, and will be found among other data on the state’s coronavirus information page, which already lists cases at nursing homes, for example, as well as a breakdown of other state data — number of cases, deaths, testing rates and the numbers of test results that are positive.

The state considers a COVID-19 “outbreak” as two or more cases “with a link by place and time indicating a shared exposure outside of a household,” Sutfin has previously said.

Sutfin cautioned that the absence of a school name from the list doesn’t mean parents, students and staff should let down their guard in following COVID-19 safety protocols. Nor does a school’s listing assign any fault for a virus outbreak, she said.

“The presence of cases at a school does not indicate that they are not following proper procedures,” such as ensuring masks are worn and students and staff are abiding by social-distancing protocols, she said.

In Michigan, notification of a school COVID-19 outbreak is merely “strongly recommended” in the state’s Return to School Roadmap, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan to reopen schools, which was released June 30.

Schools and school districts are given broad discretion on how wide a circle of people or families to notify when students or staff test positive for the virus, although public health departments are tasked with contact tracing and notifying anyone who has been in direct contact with an infected person.

MDHHS and several county and district health departments told Bridge last month they would not automatically release the names of K-12 schools, colleges or universities with COVID-19 outbreaks, citing privacy issues, the narrow focus of public health investigations in contact tracing, and a desire to avoid gossip or rumors about schools.

On Aug. 21, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, told Bridge the state would eventually release the names of schools where there are outbreaks, but only after it was able to transform its computer system to capture that information. She said it may take weeks, however,  and did not set a firm date on when that would happen.

Critics called for greater, more immediate transparency. Earlier Tuesday, more than 30 Michigan news and government transparency organizations delivered a letter to Whitmer urging rapid release of school-related COVID outbreak details as students and educators start the new school year.

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