Because the risks of quarantine outweigh the risk of illness, a Colorado school district insists it not reporting COVID cases to local health officials, despite state officials saying the law requires it.
“In our assessment, supported by months of observation and interaction from students and communities with relevant experience data, the risks of quarantine far outweigh the risks of the disease,” wrote District 49 CEO Peter Hilts in a statement to the families on Thursday . “Therefore, we will not allow voluntary reports and contact traces that aim to quarantine and isolate healthy people.”
Hilts first outlined its approach to COVID this school year in a memo in early August as well as in a briefing to school authorities, as first reported by the Colorado Springs Gazette. After guiding his school district through the 2020-21 school year, Hilts concluded that too many students needed quarantine and that switching to online learning frequently was bad for students.
“Our experience last year was that quarantines were almost a knee-jerk reaction to any report.” [of COVID], verified or second hand, suspected or confirmed, ”Hilts told Chalkbeat. “We quarantined thousands of students who never got sick, and in some cases they missed weeks of classes.”
But when Chalkbeat asked Governor Jared Polis about the district’s decision at a press conference Wednesday, he said schools need to report COVID cases, “That’s the law, and that’s clear.”
State epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy reiterated this point at a separate press conference on Thursday and again in an interview with Chalkbeat.
“State law and regulations state that cases of reportable illness and suspected and confirmed outbreaks must be reported by law,” she said. “So that would be an expectation.”
Throughout the pandemic, there has been tension between the state agency and local control over COVID logs. Many school principals scrambled under state quarantine rules, blaming them for the challenges of maintaining personal learning, even when other school principals said the state had not provided enough guidance and left too much to school districts that lacked public knowledge Health is lacking.
This year, Polis abandoned the state of emergency that gave him additional powers, giving school districts powers for everything from masks to quarantines, while relaxing many regulations. However, state health officials say this does not extend to communicable disease reporting.
Colorado, like other states, maintains a long list of contagious notifiable diseases, from anthrax and plague to measles and chickenpox. Laboratories must notify health authorities if they find positive cases. Likewise, doctors and those responsible for schools and licensed day-care centers.
Failure to report a known case of these communicable diseases is an offense that carries potential fines and imprisonment, Herlihy said, although it is very rare for state or local authorities to pursue criminal charges.
“I hope there is a misunderstanding,” Herlihy told Chalkbeat. “We want to make sure that they respect the requirements of the law and their duties.”
Schools must also report suspected or confirmed outbreaks, defined as five or more cases from separate households in the same classroom or activity over a two-week period. Hilts said the district met this requirement.
The reason for this, Herlihy said, is to identify patterns of disease transmission and help public health officials intervene early.
“The risk would be that persistent transmission could take place without people knowing,” Herlihy said.
When labs report cases, they include the name, date of birth, and address of the person who tested positive. Public health officials may know right away that a school-age child tested positive, but they wouldn’t know what school that person went to until they could interview the family. If cases are increasing rapidly and contact tracers are overwhelmed, it can take even longer to realize that there are multiple cases at a single school.
“There is a good chance that school officials will be the first to hear about a cluster,” Herlihy said.
State health officials said they were unaware that other districts are following the District 49 approach, but Hilts said he speaks regularly with other superintendents and believes his district is not alone.
The guidelines for schools published by the state are more ambiguous than rules and laws.
“When school staff conduct and interpret rapid tests on site, they act as a clinical laboratory and are obliged to report all results,” says Colorado’s practical guide for the operationalization of the CDC school guide. “Schools and childcare facilities are also encouraged to report individual cases they become aware of to their local health department, even if the tests were conducted elsewhere.”
This wording – “encouraged to report” – also appears on the El Paso County Public Health website, which oversees District 49. A spokeswoman for the county’s health ministry said her agency hopes the state clarifies its guidelines soon.
A spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said the guidelines would be revised to align with state health regulations that require reporting.
Hilts said the district has consulted with a lawyer and believes its policies are in line with the law. However, he is open to new information and adjustments.
“The cases are reported by the laboratory or a medical service provider,” said Hilts. “Our challenge is whether it is our responsibility to report this. I’m not worried that we will cover up or mask COVID-positive cases. “
Hilts said the district is still regularly consulting public health and will continue to inform families and employees if they have had close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID. Schools won’t help with contact tracing or enforce quarantines, however.
In his statement to the families, Hilts said the El Paso county public health service is still quarantining students and staff, although Polis said Wednesday that counties can decide whether to follow quarantine guidelines.
“The contradiction between the governor’s and the county’s messages creates ambiguities that we resolve by exercising local leadership,” he wrote.