Weekly data: Macomb County makes up more than half of new school outbreak cases. Officials say it’s because of the new definition.
More than half of the COVID cases associated with outbreaks in Michigan schools are from Macomb County, according to data from the state health department’s weekly update.
101 new school outbreaks contain a total of 858 COVID cases. Macomb County has 25 new outbreaks, which accounts for 484 cases.
Macomb County Health Department’s spokesperson Scott Turske declined to answer Michigan Radio’s questions. But Macomb County Health Department director Andrew Cox told The Macomb Daily that Macomb County’s numbers this week reflect the state’s recently expanded definition for K-12 outbreaks.
The state updated its definition of K-12 outbreaks at the end of September to match the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists’ new guidelines.
The biggest difference is that before the change, outbreaks were defined as two or more cases that were linked together. Now, it is three or more cases.
But the state health department is also aggregating outbreaks with clusters. Clusters, which were part of the new CSTE guidelines, are three or more cases in a group that do not have a definitive exposure link between them.
MDHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin said in an email to Michigan Radio, “MDHHS feels that both for consistency and transparency in public reporting that both clusters and outbreaks be reported as there are numerous barriers to identifying epidemiological or exposure linkages between cases, including:
- Limited resources to perform in-depth case investigations at the local level.
- The depth in which schools are able to participate in the case investigation process.
- Public engagement with investigators in the case investigation process."
Cox said in the article that five of the recent reports are defined as an outbreak. But 20 are clusters. He said to The Detroit Free Press that clusters were from the past 28 days, not week. (MDHHS spokesperson Chelsea Wuth said to Michigan Radio there is a chance Macomb's cluster "cases aren’t all 'new', they are newly identified as being associated with a recently discovered cluster/outbreak." New clusters and outbreaks are one that are "identified during the current reporting week.")
Cox told The Macomb Daily that the numbers look “one-sided.”
“Sometimes the data does paint the picture that Macomb County is lagging behind in response. I disagree with that,” he told the local newspaper.
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said to The Macomb Daily other schools and counties are reporting differently than Macomb County.
“Our schools are upset about how this is being played out,” he said to the paper. The article states both officials believe once districts in other counties catch up to the new guidelines, their numbers will also be high.
According to Wuth, MDHHS “intended for clusters/outbreaks to be reported together in one number starting in September.”
The inclusion of clusters was something that Midland County health director Fred Yanoski brought up back in September. Midland County appeared to have the most outbreaks (12 outbreaks with 83 related cases) in the first update with the new guidelines. He said while every case is a concern, the aggregate reporting makes things appear more severe.
“...you can almost say any building could have a cluster, but not an outbreak. But when they're ultimately reported as an outbreak, I think there might be a tendency for it to look worse than it actually is based on the definition of those two terms,” Yanoski said in September.
“I can only say what happens for the Midland County Department of Public Health. We are reporting per the request from the state,” he added. “What the state does with the data we can't control, or other health departments.”
Yanoksi said that the public health response changes rapidly and that he expected “this reporting will get refined so it’s appropriately reflected at the state level.”
“...sometimes the reporting has to catch up a little and make sure that we’re reporting what we’re asked to report.”
A health department spokesperson from Michigan's second-most populous county, Oakland, said it confirmed with MDHHS that it is reporting its numbers accurately.
"Schools are still seeing plenty of COVID-19 cases, it just so happens none of them were in clusters this week," Bill Mullan wrote in an email to Michigan Radio. "If you go to the individual websites of various Oakland County school districts, you will see each school district continues to report individual cases."
The state’s outbreak data is a good way to get a quick picture of what transmission is like within the school setting. That is what makes it different from a school’s personal COVID dashboard. But MDHHS warns on its website that these outbreaks can be underreported since contact tracing is hard to do in some environments.
Masks in Macomb schools
According to The Macomb Daily, Hackel has no plans for a mask mandate. This concerns parents like Emily Mellits, whose kids are going to a school that appeared on the outbreak list.
Mellits is part of a group called Macomb County Parents for Safe In-Person School. These parents want to see Macomb County implement a mask mandate in K-12 schools like other large counties such as Wayne and Oakland have.
“And it’s very frustrating. I’ve already had one child in quarantine. I've already had one child with a teacher sick with COVID. So it's a lot of learning loss...not every case of COVID is preventable. But some of them are, with a mask mandate,” Mellits said.
The CDC recommends universal masking for people in K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status.
42% of Michigan school districts have a mask policy. Some school districts are rescinding their policies. And while COVID is generally considered to be milder for children, some can experience dangerous outcomes.
Children can also contribute to community spread. This week MDHHS’s data update also says there is a correlation showing that “(d)istricts without mask requirements are experiencing higher case rates.” (But it is not causation, meaning other factors could be at play.)
Mellits said Macomb County's parents also want their county health department to publish a dashboard of COVID data for all of the school districts. Currently, parent volunteers are visiting each district website and gathering the information themselves.
“This is not our job. We're parents who just want our kids to stay in school. And yet we're having to work so hard to just have what's right,” she said.
But some of these qualms are with the state government too.
Michigan Parents Alliance for Safe Schools is an organization that wants the state government to issue a mask mandate.
Mellits added there seems to be inconsistency from district to district on what data needs to be displayed. Her group has asked the state government to give clear, consistent data guidelines for every district to follow.
“And that's what makes all the data more confusing to the parents. We really don't have a clear picture. We don't really have one person making the right choices from the top down,” she said.
Utica Community Schools’ response
Eisenhower High School and Adlai E. Stevenson High School have the biggest outbreaks — 53 and 45 cases respectively, affecting both staff and students. Eisenhower has 1,900 students while Stevenson has 2,000 students — and both are located within a Macomb County school district called Utica Community Schools.
Tim McAvoy is a spokesperson with Utica Community schools. He said the district is working with the health department in implementing protocols.
“In areas where there may be an increased impact of COVID-19, we have worked with families in specific schools or programs to adjust mitigation strategies,” McAvoy wrote in an email to Michigan Radio. “These adjustments have included the temporary use of face coverings or placing classes into remote learning.”
Utica Community Schools also does not have a mask mandate — but its mitigation plan has spurred “a handful” of elementary schools to don the mask either in classrooms, grade levels or “in one case, a school with temporary face coverings.” The high schools currently are not subject to adjustment.
McAvoy added that the numbers on the dashboard can often differ from the numbers seen on the state level.
“The dashboard on our website reflects the number of individuals who tested positive or probable after being in attendance at one of our schools,” he said. “We are working to gain understanding of the differences between the state report and our district’s dashboard.”
“Along with the Macomb Intermediate School District as well as Macomb County school districts, we are working to promote a safe educational environment,” Macomb County Health Department spokesperson Scott Turskee wrote in a statement to Michigan Radio. “As we have in the past, we’ll continue to work with these partners and monitor Macomb County schools, and act accordingly.”
*Clarification: This piece has been updated with additional statements from MDHHS on the timeline of cluster reporting on October 21 at 1:41 p.m.