State health officials: K-12 schools aren’t ‘driving’ coronavirus infections

The state’s K-12 schools are not big  “drivers” of coronavirus infections, state health officials said Thursday.

Infections related to K-12 school clusters make up 0.1% of the 285,661 lab-confirmed cases recorded in North Carolina, officials said.

In a child care or school setting, a COVID-19 cluster is defined as a minimum of five positive cases within a 14-day period and plausible epidemiologic linkage between cases.

“Although there are cases and there are clusters in school settings, and we all expected that, we still aren’t seeing our school settings as a big driver of the cases,” State Health Director Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson told members of the State Board of Education during an COVID-19 update.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) has provided the state board with regular updates to help school boards and superintendents make informed decisions about reopening schools.

State educators expressed concern about student and teacher safety after Gov. Roy Cooper announced that districts could reopen elementary and primary schools for in-person instruction as early as Oct. 5.

NCDHHS provided this data on school cluster-associated infections:

  • There have been 390 total cluster-associated cases among all K-12 clusters (active and complete). 
  • There have been no K-12 cluster-linked deaths.
  • There are 297 cases associated with currently active clusters as of Nov. 3. 
  • There are 34 currently active clusters.
  • There 182 cluster-associated infections among students and 115 among staff.

Tilson noted that infections are increasing in rural counties more quickly than in urban and suburban counties. 

The state is also seeing more proportional infections among blacks, she said. 

African Americans make up 22% of the state’s population, but made up 38 percent of COVID-19 cases and 37 percent of infection-related deaths in early spring.

“That thankfully has leveled off, and now we’re seeing, and we don’t want anyone to get infected, but at least proportional infection in our African American community,” Tilson said.

The rate of infections in Latinx communities has decreased but remains disproportional.

“The surge we are seeing now is in our white, rural population,” Tilson said.

NCDHHS reported 2,859 new COVID-19 cases, which is the second highest total since the start of the pandemic.

Health officials are worried that the approaching Thanksgiving Holiday will drive infections rates even higher.

Susan Gale Perry, NCDHHS chief deputy secretary, asked board members to be role models by wearing masks, practicing social distancing and washing their hands.

Perry also asked the board to share NCDHH guidance on holiday gatherings scheduled for release next week.

“We want folks to have the safest possible celebration with friends and family during this holiday season,” Perry said.  

NCDHHS Director Mandy Cohen gave a preview of that guidance during a COVID-19 update Thursday.

Cohen said the agency will urge people who are sick to not attend or host a holiday gathering. People who do host gatherings, she said, will be encouraged to keep them small, hold them outside if possible, seat family members from the same household together, wear masks when not eating or drinking, sanitize commonly touched areas and get screened for the virus before traveling.

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