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Justice to look into adding school virus cases into dashboard

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

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 or 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 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 positives 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.”

“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 of suspected coronavirus case. In teachers and staff, the rate was 0.49 percent. Looking as 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.”

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