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Park Record, September 22, 2021--Covid data for Summit County schools is reliable, health official says...No outbreaks have been seen in schools, but younger people are contracting the virus. 

The Summit County order mandating mask-wearing at elementary schools if a COVID-19 outbreak flares up could be in place through the end of 2021, after the County Council on Monday extended a provision necessary for it to remain in place.

But a Utah Department of Health announcement last week raised questions about the reliability of the data used to determine when a school has reached the case threshold that would trigger such a mandate. The Department of Health said nearly half of cases among school-aged children statewide were not included in school case counts.

“People who refuse or are unable to be interviewed are not associated with schools, so these data are an underestimate of the true burden of COVID-19 in schools,” the department wrote.

Such a discrepancy could potentially be key in Summit County, where the existing order calls for masks to be worn if 2% of an elementary school’s population — students and adults — tests positive for COVID-19 within a 14-day span.

If only half of diagnosed cases have been linked to a school, it’s possible the mandate wouldn’t be implemented when intended.

Summit County Health Director Phil Bondurant said Monday, however, that the data the Summit County Health Department is using to determine school cases doesn’t suffer from the same issues affecting the state database.

“We’re basing our response and potentially meeting the COVID trigger on the numbers being reported from the point of contact at each school, not the state database,” he said.

He said the recent uptick in cases locally is not nearly as severe as in the rest of the state and that there are “very low numbers” in Summit County schools.

He added he had no reason to think the data from local schools was inaccurate or underreported.

“Our system we have implemented here locally is actually more efficient than the state system,” Bondurant said. “There can be upwards of a three-day lag time when it’s reported to the state website. For us, that is reported the same day the school is aware there’s a positive case.”

The Health Department has received state funding to hire a coordinator to work with schools, Bondurant said. That person is in direct contact with the three Summit County school districts, updating numbers in real time on shared documents.

Bondurant said the county’s contact tracers are focusing on cases in people younger than 18.

He also said that people refusing to be interviewed had not stymied local contact tracing efforts. He acknowledged that, as in other aspects of the pandemic response, the Health Department was relying on members of the community to “do the right thing,” including keeping children home from school if they feel sick.

At a special County Council meeting Monday convened to extend the health order, which was set to lapse that day, Bondurant told the elected officials that no school has had more than 1% of its population test positive for COVID-19 over a two-week period this fall.

“We haven’t had any outbreaks in our schools — two or more cases connected to one case,” he said.

He also shared data that indicated cases are occurring in younger people. Since July 1, there have been 133 cases of COVID-19 among Summit County residents 14 years or younger, nearly one out of every five diagnosed cases.

As of Monday evening, the Park City School District reported 12 cases among its four elementary schools, North Summit reported two cases in its elementary school and South Summit reported zero cases at its elementary school.

Park City and North Summit host the data on their own websites, while South Summit uses the state interface.

Jodi Jones, a spokesperson for the South Summit School District, said the numbers reported on the state website accurately correspond with the number of cases in the district.

Bondurant said the South Summit case reporting system appears to be “working well.”

He also offered a possible explanation for some cases among young people that are not included in school case counts.

For a case to be included in a school’s numbers, the person must have been present at school within 48 hours of feeling symptoms of COVID-19 or testing positive for the disease. A case that manifested over a weekend would not be counted if the child stayed home on Monday, for example.

At the meeting on Monday, Bondurant recommended the council extend the public health emergency order.

“The fact that we’re still reporting deaths and hospitalizations for COVID-19 when the vaccine is available indicates that there’s still an emergency at hand,” he said. “… We still find ourselves in a situation where the hospital system is being overwhelmed. Our health care workers are again at their wits’ end in trying to manage a situation that’s 100% preventable.”

The council unanimously extended the order until Dec. 31.