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Washington schools have logged 182 COVID-19 outbreaks this school year, says new report

UPDATED: Fri., April 30, 2021

North Central High School students keep to the right in the hallways and throughout the building as they attend in-person classes for the first time this school year, March 1, in Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
North Central High School students keep to the right in the hallways and throughout the building as they attend in-person classes for the first time this school year, March 1, in Spokane. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Hannah Furfaro Seattle Times

Washington has logged more than 182 coronavirus outbreaks in school buildings this school year, with a slim majority of school-linked infections in children and teenagers age 18 and younger, according to a new Department of Health report released Friday afternoon.

The findings generally fit with previous government reports about COVID-19 in Washington schools: a narrow majority of those who tested positive were children or young adults. And a majority of outbreaks involved a small number of cases, usually two to three, and sprung up in schools that were using in-person or hybrid learning models.

“Most of the outbreaks are quite small, which is a really positive sign,” said Samantha Rice, an epidemiologist at DOH. “It’s not an alarming jump (from prior outbreak reports) and I think the biggest takeaway is the schools are working really hard and doing a lot to have mitigation measures in place.”

The report comes amid rising concern about coronavirus cases in children elsewhere in the U.S. In other states where students returned to school buildings, cases have ticked up in recent weeks.

In Michigan, where schools were largely open by March 1 and the highly transmissible B.1.1.7 variant has surged, the state in recent weeks has seen record numbers of children hospitalized for coronavirus complications. The state’s governor recently expanded Michigan’s mask mandate to children ages 2 to 4. In Colorado, the Denver Post reported, cases in children have now topped 2,300, up from 861 in December. And in West Virginia, cases among those under age 20 now account for 26% of the state’s infections.

Over the course of the pandemic, Washington too has seen a rise in incidence among children and young adults.

“The rates are continuing to go up in children,” said Seattle epidemiologist Judith Malmgren, who has published research analyzing the state’s COVID-19 data by age. “And it’s not good because the variants are no longer asymptomatic in children. They are symptomatic. That’s the difference. They get sick, they get stuck in the hospital.”

Washington officials have said that transmission at schools is rare, a notion supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a growing body of scientific evidence. Several studies have found that schools can reopen safely when they adhere to a long list of safety procedures such as universal masking, hand-washing and social distancing.

Until recently, however, Washington’s school outbreak data has provided only a limited snapshot of coronavirus risk because so few students were learning in person.

During the pandemic, state and federal guidance resulted in a patchwork of school reopening strategies that led some districts – in mostly rural, white and politically conservative areas – to reopen sooner than districts in urban, liberal-leaning places that mostly serve students of color. As of March 8, about 55% of Washington elementary schoolers were learning in person at least once a week – and less than 40% of middle and high schoolers were.

In April, schools statewide were required to open their doors under a mandate from Gov. Jay Inslee. Now, about 70% of the state’s students are learning face-to-face at least once during the school week, state education department data shows.

Washington’s new report, which includes data from August 2020 to March 31, 2021 – before the governor’s mandate kicked in – provides updated coronavirus case counts and demographic information about 708 people involved in 182 school outbreaks. An outbreak includes two or more coronavirus cases among students and staff over two weeks – and signs that transmission happened on school grounds.

Nearly a third of school-linked cases cropped up in children ages 0-14, the Friday report suggests. Another 24% were logged in those ages 15-19. Among adults, 26% of cases were ages 20-49, and 19% were over age 50. Fewer than 10 people were hospitalized overnight, and no one died.

Schools in 18 counties have recorded outbreaks. Spokane County tops the list and has recorded 38 outbreaks involving 185 people. Pierce County schools have recorded 26, and King County has logged 24. About 74% of outbreaks were logged at public schools, while 26% occurred at private schools.

“Looking at the report, the data show that just like any other place where people congregate, we need to continue our vigilant COVID protections in school buildings,” said Julie Popper, spokesperson for the statewide teachers union, the Washington Education Association.

Overall, the number of school-related outbreaks here is higher than those reported at grocery stores, shelters and most other areas of public life. Compared to schools, outbreaks are most common at restaurants – 343 were logged since the start of the pandemic – child-care centers, and in manufacturing, retail and construction settings.

Over the past two months, the number of reported weekly outbreaks at schools has hovered between 3 and 11. DOH receives its outbreak data from local health jurisdictions, and the week an outbreak is reported by the state doesn’t necessarily reflect when it was first identified by local health officials.

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