What we know about Utah’s school outbreaks and how kids can transmit the coronavirus

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Glenda Woodring, who teaches 4th grade at Jackson Elementary, tries to connect to the internet as she sees her first day of school online cut short due to the wind storm on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

School is back. Students are (mostly) wearing masks. Teachers are trying to keep their distance while doing their vital jobs. And everyone is a bit worried about outbreaks. What will it mean for our communities?

I thought this was a good time to get an initial look at the issue, for two reasons. First, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released two studies about young people and the virus — including one from right here in Salt Lake City.

Second, we’re just starting to get data trickling in about coronavirus in schools from elementary up to the collegiate levels. It’s not enough to make sweeping generalizations or predictions yet, but it’s enough to see how the data will be released, which will be helpful as fall and winter comes. Let’s dig in.

Two studies

The CDC released two studies this week regarding COVID-19 in youths. One has good news, the other has bad news. Which should I tell you first?

According to a study done by researchers at the University of California, Riverside, more than 75% of people prefer bad news first, so we’ll start there. (Conversely, most news givers prefer giving the good news first, according to the research. That was my initial preference, too, but I exist to serve my readers.)

The bad news comes from the Salt Lake City study. In it, three coronavirus outbreaks in three child care facilities were analyzed to try to figure out the extent of viral spread both in the facility and beyond. The facilities have very different sizes: one only had five staff and children combined, the second had 12 staff and children, and the third had 84 staff and children — quite large!

The graph they created to help people understand the outbreaks is a bit messy, but it is digestible if you look at it for a while.

Three child care center outbreaks, as studied by the CDC. (https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6937e3.htm?s_cid=mm6937e3_w)

Facility A — the 12-person facility — only had two people catch the virus, both were staff members. All other attendees stayed either asymptomatic or tested negative, so too did all of their close contacts. The CDC notes that staff at Facility A wore masks.

Facility B — the 5-person facility — had all five test positive. The notable result is that both kids there, an 8-month-old and an 8-year-old, ended up passing the virus to their household contacts: both of the 8-month-old’s parents and three contacts of the 8-year-old. This facility also had adults, but not children, wear masks.

Facility C — the 84-person facility — didn’t require masks for anyone. Five staff members and 10 children ended up testing positive. Those fifteen cases led to an additional nine cases in their close contacts, including three of the 10 moms of the infected kids. One of those moms went to the hospital, though she survived.

In short, it’s pretty clear kids of all ages can transmit the coronavirus to adults, and do so at significant rates. Transmission from kids might be slightly less common than from adults, but not by a huge distance, as these examples show. That’s the bad news.

The good news? The other CDC study shows just how unlikely it is that children die from COVID-19. Between Feb. 12 and July 31, there were 391,814 cases found in people under 21 years old and 121 died, a 0.03% case fatality rate.

In fact, nearly half of those deaths came from those in the 18-20 part of that group, while 12 of the deaths were infants under a year old. For those in between, the risk of death is even smaller.

Age at COVID-19 death among those <21. (https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6937e4.htm?s_cid=mm6937e4_w#F1_down)

And 75% of the 121 young people who died had preexisting conditions, like asthma (28% of the deaths) or obesity (27% of the deaths).

Of course, just because the vast majority of these young people didn’t die doesn’t mean that being sick wasn’t difficult, or that they don’t have long-term symptoms. That’s still possible; death isn’t the only bad outcome. But the two studies above show the gist of the current thinking on school outbreaks and kids: the coronavirus isn’t super dangerous for the children themselves, but school and child care activities can mean spread to the adults in the room and at home, where tragedy is more common.

School outbreaks and how to track them

These are still early days, so we still have an incomplete picture of how common these outbreaks are likely to be. No one really knows the answer, quite frankly, and anyone who tries to tell you they do is probably untrustworthy. Rather than making sweeping conclusions about what’s going to happen moving forward, I’m just going to show you what’s happened so far, and how to track cases from here on out.

First, the most useful tool for Salt Lake County parents is the Salt Lake County Department of Health website. Its coronavirus dashboard, which you can find at slco.org, is by far the most detailed in the state, and on slide No. 10, the county lists case numbers by school district, school type, and even for each individual school.

COVID-19 data for schools in Salt Lake County. (https://slco.org/health/COVID-19/data/, slide No. 10)

Yes, they don’t give exact case counts for each school for privacy reasons, but it’s still an easy, at-a-glance way to find out which schools have had the highest number of cases overall and over the past 14 days.

Among my takeaways: high schools have experienced more than their fair share of outbreaks so far, including Corner Canyon High, which has had over 15 students test positive in the past 14 days. State health officials recommend that a school move to virtual teaching if 15 student or more test positive in a two-week window, but Corner Canyon only moved to a hybrid schedule.

Utah’s other counties don’t separate out school data, which means the best source of information is often the school districts themselves. Some districts are good about being transparent, like Cache County School District. Others have chosen to release no data at all so far. Checking with your individual district is the way to go here.

There is data coming from Utah’s colleges, though.

• The University of Utah posts coronavirus updates weekly on coronavirus.utah.edu. As of Monday, the last update, 241 cases had been reported on campus.

• BYU also posts updates weekly at its coronavirus website. BYU has had 560 cases as of Sept. 15, though we know more are coming in the next update because of the big outbreak there.

• Utah State actually updates its page daily — good for them! USU had 143 cases since the Fall Semester began: 137 students and six staff.

• I’m not sure how often Utah Valley University intends to update its site, but it hasn’t happened since Sept. 7. Then, there were 151 students and 47 faculty and staff with positive cases.

• Southern Utah University updates its site weekly, and have had 17 cases since school began again.

• It’s not clear how often Salt Lake Community College updates its site, but the last count shows 35 cases since Aug. 25.

Dixie State has had only 28 cases since May.

On each of these college’s sites, you’ll note that the numbers rely on self-reported data. That means it is going to be low — some people won’t fill out the self-reporting form. When you check these counts, know that they’re under-representations of each individual school’s real case tally.

Still, they’re going to be useful; we’ll get an idea of the transmission rate in collegiate communities, for example. Through two weeks at most schools, there were more cases in week two than in week one, but not by explosive amounts yet. That implies an Rt, the rate at which a person with the virus spreads it to others, of greater than 1, but less than 2. Again, it’s something to keep an eye on, especially as the seasons change.

And what’s really going to be important is adapting college coronavirus restrictions to the numbers. If that transmission rate starts to explode, it’s time to move to online learning and targeted quarantining in dormitories. If cases stay low and stagnant, then more normal classes can resume.

As we’ve learned all pandemic long, it’s a tricky balancing act to maintain public health and public wellbeing. Keeping a close eye on the data gives us the best shot.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist who is focusing on the coronavirus. He is also one of The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utah Jazz beat writers. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.