As the school year forges ahead, local health and education officials are working to understand the data — and the unknowns — of students’ role in spreading the novel coronavirus.
Cache County School District is seeing a rise in COVID-19 infections, but no school has yet reached a level that would prompt consideration of temporary in-person class dismissal.
“We would love to get to the end of the year and have kept schools open all year,” CCSD spokesman Tim Smith said. “That’s really our goal, is if we can stay safe and stay open.”
There were 20 active cases of the virus in the school district as of Oct. 7, according to the district’s website, up from 11 active cases one week prior. The Logan City School District reported five active cases as of Oct. 5.
Most local K-12 cases have been found in high schools.
“The high schools keep switching positions for who’s in the lead for number of cases,” Smith said, “but they’re still not at a level where we’re overly concerned, but we are concerned.”
Sky View lists the most active infections at 7, followed by Green Canyon and Mountain Crest with 3 each. Ridgeline is reporting 2 active infections, and Cache High has reported zero for the school year so far.
Sky View reported only two active infections a week ago, so administrators are keeping an eye on the sudden increase. Still, the school has fewer than half the number at which the state recommends a two-week dismissal of in-person classes, 15 active infections.
Smith said the district takes that recommendation seriously, though the decision to dismiss in-person classes will be more complicated than an automatic shutdown when the counter reaches 15.
“You do get some subtleties in those numbers,” Smith said. “In one case … two students have contracted the virus but they’d never been to school because they were quarantined when they contracted the virus. So that doesn’t necessarily count toward the 15, just because it was a unique case.”
The Bear River Health Department, working with local school officials, has interpreted the state’s guideline to mean 15 infections with evidence that the virus is spreading at school, not through social interactions off-campus or through the larger community, according to epidemiologist Caleb Harrison.
“So if there are more than 15 cases in a school but all of those cases are due to home exposures or social exposures, we still feel that the schools are a safe place as long as we aren’t seeing transmission happening within the schools,” Harrison said.
So far, none of the cases in local schools have been linked to classroom exposure, Harrison said, and most cases appear to have come through contact with a sick household member.
There may be some spread through extracurricular activities, however.
A small group of cases has been linked to the Sky View volleyball team, Smith said, but he believes that has mostly resolved itself at this point.
“The team out there was the first school-transmitted case, where we knew the case was transmitted in between students,” Smith said.
Administrators would probably have serious concerns even before a high school hit 15 cases, Smith said, because those students are so socially active.
“At a secondary school, you end up quarantining so many students for each case that that’s what really becomes problematic, is the number of quarantines that you have,” Smith said.
Local elementary schools are still reporting low numbers of confirmed infections.
“Our elementary schools are doing excellent,” Smith said. “They’re smaller classes, we can keep them isolated a little easier than we can in the high school. Middle schools, for the most part, have done very well.”
Young people in general are more likely not to develop symptoms from COVID-19, however, which could make it more difficult for epidemiologists to detect spread among students.
Currently, BRHD only recommends people to go get tested if they exhibit symptoms. When a student tests positive for COVID-19, contact tracers look at the student’s routines and seating charts and quarantine people who have likely spent more than 15 minutes within 6 feet of the student while infectious, Harrison said. Those quarantined students are only instructed to get tested if and when they develop symptoms. This helps prioritize testing for people who need it most, but COVID-19 tests are also less likely to detect an infection in asymptomatic individuals. These factors make it difficult for epidemiologists to track asymptomatic spread.
Harrison said to help increase local epidemiologists’ ability to track the virus, BRHD is consulting with local testing sites and may soon start recommending that people who’ve been in close contact with infected individuals get tested even without exhibiting symptoms.
Underscoring challenges posed by COVID-19, a very large study of how the virus has spread in India found widespread transmission among children there, even though schools have not been in session since March. Ramanan Laxminarayan, one of the study’s authors, told National Public Radio that children in the study were particularly likely to get infected by young adults in the 20-40 age range and pass the virus among themselves as well as to others of all age groups.
“Kids are silent spreaders in the sense that they don’t manifest the disease with symptoms,” Laxminarayan told NPR. “They happen to get infected as much as anyone else, and then they happen to spread it to other people.”
And while most elementary and high school students aren’t likely to develop serious symptoms, there are several factors that can increase risk even in younger patients, such as asthma, diabetes and autoimmune disorders, among others.
Outside of K-12 schools, COVID-19 continues to spread in the larger community. The Bear River Health District — which includes Cache, Box Elder and Rich counties — reported 85 new cases on Wednesday, the largest single-day increase outside of a June outbreak at a Hyrum meatpacking plant. The rolling 7-day average of new daily cases was about 55 on Wednesday, the highest that figure has reached since the outbreak, as well. There are more than 850 estimated active cases in the district.
Hospitalizations in the district have risen sharply, from 1 patient on Monday, 8 on Tuesday to 12 on Wednesday. Seven of those hospitalizations are in Cache County and five are in Box Elder, even though Cache has more than 4.5 times as many estimated active cases.
Most of the recent cases locally and statewide have been among the 18-25 year-old age group, prompting concerns about socialization habits of college students.
While examples of students flouting pandemic-mitigation rules have caught media attention in the past several weeks, Harrison said another thing to keep in mind is that disease outbreaks tend to be worse in “congregate housing.” While USU has done a “phenomenal job of putting protective measures on campus, including in on-campus housing,” Harrison said, many students live in off-campus apartments.
“They live in small apartments together where you can’t necessarily socially distance, where you can’t necessarily stay together as a household and only have contact with each other in the same way that many families do,” Harrison said. “Each of those apartments represent a group of people who go out and interact with other people at school or at work and then come home and interact with each other.”