As Utah enters the flu season, it appears the COVID-19 pandemic also will be around through the winter months.
That information is not sitting well with some educators and others concerned about in-person school classes.
According to America’s COVID warning system for Utah, the state is, “actively experiencing an outbreak or is at extreme risk. COVID cases are exponentially growing and/or Utah’s COVID preparedness is significantly below international standards.”
On Monday, Utah reported 988 cases and five deaths due to COVID-19.
As daily briefings and updates on virus cases continue from the Utah Health Department and other health organizations and the governor’s task force, it is apparent the numbers are not where they should be.
Daily reports from media, and health sources are keeping individuals updated on new cases, how many deaths and hospitalizations there are, but most people are not readily getting part of the information; that is the positivity rates.
Information from the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control indicates that communities should be at 5% or less for 14 consecutive days before opening up in-person classes, or opening up businesses for that matter.
They also note along with low positivity rates, sufficient testing must also be performed.
According to the Facebook group, “Safe Utah Schools,” which appears to be one of the few places to find and follow positivity rates, Utah County’s average weekly rolling positivity rate for the week ending Oct. 7 was 30.36%. On Sept. 21, Utah County had a positivity rate of 26.67%. On Sept. 15, it was 25.51%.
On Sept. 28 it was reported that the Alpine School District, the largest district in the state, had the highest number of cases, reporting 419. The district identified four high schools with at least 15 cases each; none of those schools had closed.
“All the while, children are going to school, spending time in crowded classrooms and hallways, in bleachers for football games, in choir and band, visiting each other in social gatherings, and then going to their homes, and to see extended family,” according to one Alpine School District teacher who wrote her concerns in a letter to the school board. “They’re passing it along to each other, to younger siblings, to parents and grandparents.
“Employees, such as myself, are sent each and every day into such a circumstance — only to come home late each day from school, to shower and self-isolate from family in case we, too, have picked it up — wondering each and every morning if today will be the day when we get sick,” she said in her letter, asking not to be identified.
She and her co-workers are continually wondering if they will then spread it to their family members.
The letter said, “As a taxpayer in Utah County, in Alpine School District, and in the state of Utah, I would like to know why we, the public, are not more informed. Why do we, the public, have to figure these kinds of things out for ourselves? Why are we, the public, kept ignorant of the real situation going on in our community?”
One of the written concerns indicates the Utah County Health Department is not as forthcoming or transparent on positivity rates as other information.
Calls to the Alpine School District and Utah County Health Department were not returned.
However, in a presentation to the Provo Municipal Council on Oct. 6, Ralph Clegg, director of the Utah County Health Department, said that data, including positivity rates can be requested.
Safe Utah Schools makes it a point of posting seven-day averages by school district or county. On Oct. 7, Utah County was the highest in the state with 30.36% positivity rate and Summit County was the lowest with 6.7%.
On Monday, the state positivity rate average was 13.9%, nearly 8% more than it should be to open schools in person.
According to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, “The percent positive is a critical measure because it gives us an indication how widespread infection is in the area where the testing is occurring — and whether levels of testing are keeping up with levels of disease transmission.”
“A high percent positive means that more testing should probably be done — and it suggests that it is not a good time to relax restrictions aimed at reducing coronavirus transmission. Because a high percentage of positive tests suggests high coronavirus infection rates (due to high transmission in the community), a high percent positive can indicate it may be a good time to add restrictions to slow the spread of disease,” Johns Hopkins reports.
“Even though children have lower chances of having a serious outcome,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Insititute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, in an August report on schools reopening, “some children do get seriously ill.”
While Utah and Utah County may be small in population as compared to New York City or Los Angeles, the positivity rates are much higher.
New York City public schools can only stay open if the COVID positivity rate stays below 3%. They began opening in the middle part of September. On Oct. 1 the positivity rate had already climbed to 6.5%, according to New York State COVID-19 data.
On Sept. 25, the Los Angeles Times reported that schools in Orange County (where Disneyland is), are beginning to reopen.
“Los Angeles County is still in purple, the worst tier, while Orange County is in red — which signifies substantial transmission,” the L.A. Times reported. “But if a county stays in the red tier for 14 consecutive days, it is allowed to reopen schools.”
The Orange County COVID-19 positivity rate between 5% and 8% is still much lower than Utah County.
The unanswered question for teachers is why, with such high positivity rates, and with so much written on the subject, Utah County and Utah continue to have in-person classes, hoping it doesn’t spread.
In the meantime its back to the same mantra, wear face masks, social distance and wash your hands regularly.
With Fall Break for Utah schools at the end of the week, with vacation activities and planned get-togethers it will be important to watch and see what happens with positivity rates, new cases, deaths and hospitalizations through the next two weeks.