SALT LAKE CITY — With 25 school districts opening their doors for in-person classes this past week, and all but two slated to open next week, officials will be closely monitoring any COVID-19 cases connected to school settings.
For parents who are nervous about in-person classes, there is some good news. Local and state health department officials are carefully tracking any case — regardless of where or how COVID-19 is contracted — that exposes a school to the virus.
The bad news is that the detailed breakdown won’t be available for at least another month on a statewide level. In Salt Lake County, however, it could be available just after the largest school district — Granite — opens for class on Monday.
“The system is built,” said Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko. “We need to start inputting data and then watch it for a couple of weeks. We’re in discussions with local school districts, the Utah State Board of Education, and local health departments to see what information should be on (on the public dashboard).”
Friday saw three new cases connected to Utah schools, bringing the total of school-related COVID-19 cases to 66. The state’s website lists 13 “outbreaks” related to schools on its website, but that information is going to get much more detailed in the coming weeks and months.
Hudachko said public health organizations have never before kept data counts by individual schools.
“Our data on schools is just starting to be developed,” he said. “We’re building an entirely new surveillance system.”
An outbreak in regards to a school is defined by three or more cases in a single classroom in a 14-day period. When it comes to what constitutes a school-wide outbreak, that’s defined by 15 or more cases or 10% of a school population, whichever is less, in a 14-day period.
“Those are newer definitions,” Hudachko said. “They came out when we released the school manual about three weeks ago.”
Contact tracers, also known as investigators, will ask students, teachers or staff who become sick the same questions they ask all of those infected, but they’ll also ask if they’ve been inside or attended a school.
“We’re trying to determine potentially exposed people in a school,” he said, noting there have been cases at schools through sports teams since June, when schools were allowed to offer voluntary workouts.
2 new deaths reported
On Friday, Utah Department of Health officials announced 463 new cases, with a rolling seven-day average of 351 cases per day. Another 3,593 were tested, with a rolling, seven-day average positive test rate of 8.9%.
There were two additional deaths reported, bringing the state death toll to 383. Both were Salt Lake County men between the ages of 65 and 84. One was hospitalized at the time of his death, while the other had been hospitalized.
Salt Lake County lists cases connected to schools on its current COVID-19 website, but county health department spokesman Nicholas Rupp said it hopes to have detailed breakdowns, including cases by specific districts, including private and charter breakouts, midweek of next week. The breakdowns will also delineate if the case is associated with an elementary, junior high or high school, but won’t say if it’s a teacher or student.
As of Friday, Salt Lake County listed 11 school-related outbreaks with 57 cases. Nearly all of these happened before the start of school in Salt Lake County last week.
Rupp said that before school guidelines were released defining an outbreak as three cases in a classroom, an outbreak was considered two cases associated with the same place. Officials are still deciding if outbreak will be defined differently for schools, but the current definition for outbreaks at businesses or events is two cases associated with the same place or event.
Hospitalizations dropped Friday, as 129 people are currently hospitalized for treatment. Of Utah’s 48,445 positive cases, 39,867 are considered recovered. More than 619,000 people have been tested in the Beehive State so far.
Football game stopped
As schools invite students back to classrooms and businesses and hospitals begin easing rules with declining case and hospitalization numbers, officials say they’re relying on patrons and patients to be compliant with guidelines that include wearing masks and maintaining at least 6 feet of distance between oneself and those who do not live in the same household.
Utah is one of the few Western states attempting to sanction high school sports this fall. California, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico and Washington have all postponed their season to the 2021 calendar year. Arizona has delayed its fall season, while Utah, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are among those trying to hold normal fall seasons in all sports, including football.
That, however, could be in danger if the number of cases rises or impacts specific schools. The precarious nature of the high school sports season was illustrated Thursday night when American Fork High athletic director Jeremy Lewis stopped the televised football game with Timpview High until fans complied with both the mask and social distance rules.
The game was only stopped for four minutes, but Lewis’ actions made a massive statement, especially in a county where there have been numerous anti-mask protests and rallies.
Alpine School District Superintendent Sam Jarman expressed gratitude for Lewis’ action, which included taking the microphone to the field and telling fans they needed to go to their assigned seats and wear their masks or the game would be canceled.
Jarman said Lewis was doing “exactly what we’ve asked all of our administrators and athletic administrators to do” in this unusual situation.
The Utah High School Activities Association released guidelines in mid-July under which sporting events could be held in Utah, but the specifics of how the guidelines will be implemented were left to each school and district. Some rural districts have few restrictions, but most districts along the Wasatch Front, which accounts for 80% of the COVID-19 cases, have multiple restrictions.
In the Salt Lake City School District, teams can practice and compete, but no fans can attend home games. Some districts don’t allow fans indoors, while others restrict the number of fans and most assign seats to spectators.
In Alpine, the district that oversees American Fork, schools are allowed to sell 25% of stadium capacity, but every fan must have a mask and an assigned seat that allows for social distancing.
“We’re allowing fans because we know this is important to our communities,” Jarman said. “By doing that, we’re taking a risk. So let’s all be part of one community, and support the fact that we want our kids to play.”
Jarman knows it’s a difficult request. People want to sit with friends, and wearing a mask can be uncomfortable, especially in hot weather. But if there are outbreaks related to sports or high school activities, they will likely be canceled.
“I hope people will just do as we’ve asked, and understand it’s a privilege to attend these games under COVID circumstances,” he said.
Jarman said he’s heard from parents about how important extracurricular activities are to the mental health and overall high school experience of students.
“Over and over, we are hearing from our parents saying thank you,” he said. “There is no question, school is a social event. This gives our kids some opportunities to feel normal again, so my plea to parents and student fans is let’s support our kids by doing our part to make this happen.”
As cases decline, there are other welcome changes.
Acknowledging that support from loved ones is a critical aspect of the healing process, Intermountain Healthcare announced changes to its visitation policies at doctor offices, clinics and hospitals due to decreasing COVID-19 cases.
“The support and presence of families and loved ones is important and we’re proud of Utah’s collective response to the pandemic,” said Dr. Mark Briesacher, chief physician executive for Intermountain Healthcare. “These changes are dependent upon the continued downward trend of COVID-19 spread and impact in our communities. The safety of patients, caregivers and our communities remains our first priority.”
There are different restrictions for patients who are COVID-19 positive than there are for those who are not sick with the new coronavirus. Patients over 18 can have a maximum of two designated visitors throughout their stay with one visitor allowed at a time. For patients under 18, they can have two designated visitors at a time, but only one if they’re in an intensive care area.
Visitors with cognitive or physical needs can have help in a facility from one companion, and up to four visitors will be allowed for clinical conferences or care planning discussions.
The rules and numbers of visitors is more strict for those patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are suspected of having it. Patients visiting Intermountain clinics can now have someone accompany them to an appointment.
“Although there are still limitations on the number and type of visitors to our hospitals and emergency departments,” said Sue Robel, Intermountain’s chief nursing executive, “we understand that communicating with loved ones and friends is still an important part of a patient’s healing.”
The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:
- Salt Lake County, 22,483; 1,458 hospitalized; 222 deaths.
- Utah County, 9,949; 461 hospitalized; 42 deaths.
- Davis County, 3,542; 200 hospitalized; 21 deaths.
- Southwest Utah, 3,429; 191 hospitalized; 26 deaths.
- Weber-Morgan, 3,105; 193 hospitalized; 28 deaths.
- Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 2,443; 119 hospitalized; 9 deaths.
- Summit County, 792; 53 hospitalized; 1 death.
- San Juan County, 660; 88 hospitalized; 27 deaths.
- Tooele County, 635; 30 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Wasatch County, 609; 25 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
- Central Utah, 475; 29 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
- TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 196; 17 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Southeast Utah, 127; 6 hospitalized; 1 death.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Salt Lake County’s website would list COVID data by individual school. The cases will be listed by district and type of school.