State health official explains school COVID-19 outbreak numbers

State health official explains school COVID-19 outbreak numbers

FORREST COUNTY, Miss. (WDAM) - As coronavirus case numbers continue to break record highs across the country, Pine Belt parents have expressed concern over fluctuating case numbers at schools and large numbers of students in quarantine.

Each school in the state is required to send the number of positive COVID-19 cases among teachers and students and those in quarantine to the Mississippi State Department of Health every week. The report also lists the total number of outbreaks at each individual school.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers explains what the department of health means by “outbreak.”

“An outbreak is three or more cases within a group or a defined setting within a 14-day period, and we use that to kind of gauge what’s going on in the schools," Byers said.

For example, three or more cases confirmed in one classroom or on a sports team.

"When we start to see three or more cases in a group setting, that actually raises the risk in that group, raises the risk of transmission and exposure,” Byers said.

The Hattiesburg Public School District and the Petal Public School District also post a version of their weekly numbers online at their websites.

The Mississippi State Department of Health’s weekly report includes the number of new positive student cases, positive teacher/staff cases, the number of new quarantined students, the number of new quarantined teachers/staff and new outbreaks. The report also includes the total number of student cases, teacher/staff cases and outbreaks since the start of the school year.

Forrest County School District Superintendent Brian Freeman says high student quarantine numbers are from using contact tracing as a preventative measure.

“One reason to quarantine is actually to cut down on the potential of an outbreak and by doing the quarantine of say, 14 kids, versus having an outbreak where we have to shut and send 30 kids home, or 60 kids or our whole school," Freeman said. “That’s one reason we’re very diligent in our quarantine.”

Freeman says the positive cases and contact tracing for the Forrest County School District often goes beyond the classroom to ensure a safe school environment with any potential exposure being quarantined.

Petal School District Superintendent Matthew Dillion said quarantining any potential contact is important and the process can be extensive.

“So when you see some high number of quarantines, it’s because of seating charts," Dillon said. “It’s based on who they’re sitting around, buses, or athletic programs where they’re practicing, or art programs where they’re practicing.”

Petal High School has seen four outbreaks, according to MSDH, since the start of school.

Dillon said that after the outbreaks, the high school moved to a hybrid schedule to reduce contact even more. Petal Middle School has seen one outbreak since the start of school.

According to the MSDH report from Nov. 9 through Nov. 13, the Petal School District has had five total past outbreaks, mentioned above. Hattiesburg Public Schools and Forrest County Public Schools have not had any outbreaks.

Byers said that the outbreak category and numbers help the department gauge what is going on in each school, and what action needs to be immediately taken.

“So we use that as a threshold, and when we get to that threshold, we recommend that in that setting all the students and teachers undergo quarantine," Byers said. "When we rise to a threshold of multiple outbreaks within a school setting in a short time frame, that can often be a trigger for when a school should go virtual.”

The MSDH website is updated with the previous week’s numbers from schools each week.

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