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West Virginia May Add School-Related Coronavirus Cases to Online Dashboard

Gov. Jim Justice demonstrates how a nasal COVID-19 test is conducted during Wednesday's briefing. (Photo Courtesy/WV Governor's Office)

CHARLESTON — The state makes COVID-19 infection data available for deaths, hospitalizations, long-term care facilities, and correctional facilities, but some are wondering why neither the Department of Education nor the Department of Health and Human Resources makes data publicly available for cases among students and staff.

Gov. Jim Justice and state health officials fielded questions from the media Wednesday about why school coronavirus infection data was not available on the DHHR COVID-19 Dashboard, and also why the information wasn’t being presented in the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday briefings.

“I’ll push to be able to get that information out, and out in a way that comes out to everyone,” Justice said. “I really do believe that some of the hang up … is us being able to get that information from the local school boards or whoever that may be.”

Justice allowed schools that were rated green and yellow in the County Alert System color-coded map to re-open for in-person learning on Sept. 8. Since then, a number of schools have reported positive cases among staff and even students, causing some schools to close for in-person learning and for students and staff to self-quarantine.

The only source for positive cases among staff and students is the individual school systems themselves. For example, a Pleasants County Middle School staff member tested positive for COVID-19 according to a Sept. 20 press release, though the school itself remains open.

The DOE defines outbreaks in schools in multiple ways. A classroom or core group outbreak is defined as two or more confirmed COVID-19 cases among students/staff from separate households, with onset within 14 days in a single classroom or core group. A school-wide outbreak includes 5 percent or more of unrelated students/staff within a 14-day period. And a staff outbreak includes two or more staff with confirmed COVID-19 who are close contacts within the school setting.

Bill Crouch, secretary of DHHR, said those numbers are often reported at the local level to the public and media through county school systems and local health departments.

“It is appropriate for those local boards of health and local school boards to announce that information,” Crouch said. “When (DHHR) gets those positive cases, we don’t know if it’s a student or teacher. We don’t know that there is an outbreak unless there are two or more teachers connected epidemiologically … We have outbreak information for schools, but we don’t have the individual cases that a lot of counties are reporting. We wait until the information comes from a local investigation by a county health department.”

Both the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango — Justice’s Democratic opponent in the Nov. 3 election for governor and AFT-WV’s endorsed candidate — criticized Justice and the state for not updating the public on school COVID-19 cases.

“At a time when cases are surging in many counties, it’s disturbing that our governor and state health officials have abandoned transparency in school-related COVID case reporting,” said AFT-WV President Fred Albert. “While we understand the local health departments are responsible for contract tracing, AFT-WV believes the employer has an ethical and legal obligation to report cases in order to protect the health and safety of students, staff and community at large.”

Salango maintains that Justice is not considering the health of all concerned.

“Once again, Jim Justice is manipulating the COVID-19 data to score political points,” Salango said. “By deciding not to report accurate data in our schools, he is putting the lives of children, teachers, and school service personnel at risk and that is unacceptable.”

According to the New York Times article from Monday, West Virginia is one of 11 states that do not publicly report coronavirus cases in schools. That data could become useful for researchers looking at how COVID-19 is spread in schools. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that researchers at Brown University debuted their National COVID-19 School Response Data Dashboard, which includes data from 550 schools across the U.S.

According to the dashboard which looked at data since Aug. 31, only 0.23 percent of students had either a confirmed or suspected coronavirus case. In teachers and staff, the rate was 0.49 percent. Looking at only confirmed cases, the student infection rate was 0.08 percent and the teacher/staff rate was 0.15 percent.

“I’ll make an extra push on that because I understand the importance, and surely the importance from the standpoint of parents wanting to know what’s going on at all the schools,” Justice said. “I’ll work on that really hard.”

Justice announced Wednesday that private and Christian schools will be allowed to re-open in orange counties as long as they agree to test children and staff but remain closed in red counties. Children and staff will be allowed at those schools only if they test negative. Justice said the state really doesn’t have any authority over private schools and that those schools often don’t have sports teams or bussing.

Justice also continued to encourage West Virginians to get tested for COVID-19 in order to provide more data for the school re-entry metrics and to find asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers of the virus. Justice said he was prepared to spend more money to reach 8,000 tests per day and would send DHHR and the West Virginia National Guard to assist any county health department with drive-thru testing.

To show how simple COVID-19 tests are, Justice received a nasal test at the end of the briefing.

“There’s nothing to it,” Justice said. “It takes every bit of 10 seconds. There’s absolutely nothing to it at all. There’s no pain or no nothing, just something that would make you want to sneeze. Other than that, there’s nothing to it. I’ve been tested multiple times and I encourage everyone (to get tested).”

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