There are more than 30 active coronavirus outbreaks at K-12 schools in El Paso County that have sickened more than 450 people, a 50% increase in the number of cases reported last week.
El Paso County Public Health Communicable Disease Program Manager Haley Zachary told The Gazette Wednesday there were 459 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 32 confirmed outbreaks at local elementary, middle and high schools. That does not include data from 18 additional suspected school outbreaks the department is also tracking, she told the county Board of Health at its regular meeting Wednesday morning. Last week, the county reported 358 active cases among local schools.
“With the delta variant in addition to some of the changes in requirements for schools and mitigation strategies we’re implementing, we’re seeing a significant increase in outbreaks a lot sooner in the school year as opposed to last year,” Zachary said.
There are caveats, however.
In 2020, El Paso County schools staggered their start dates, returning to school later in the year. The state also updated its definition of a COVID-19 outbreak in June to include five or more confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 in most settings, such as schools. Prior to the change, an outbreak was determined by two or more confirmed or probable cases.
“But you can see that we already have a large number of schools that, despite making it more difficult to identify an outbreak, we’re having a larger number of them,” Zachary said.
Most facilities where outbreaks are occurring are those where people are not wearing masks or physically distancing, Zachary said. But schools implementing layered protective measures — vaccination, masks, physical distancing, and students and staff stay home when they are ill — tend to experience fewer outbreaks. Additionally, the number of people infected in an outbreak is also fewer than at schools not implementing multiple protective practices, she said.
Harrison School District 2 Superintendent Dr. Wendy Birhanzel said since her district implemented a mask mandate Sept. 7 for all students, staff, parents and visitors, they’ve seen a drastic decrease in the number of people sent home to quarantine because they were exposed to the virus.
“We were seeing, in the two weeks prior to Labor Day, about 600 or 700 students and staff having to be (quarantined) because of exposure,” Birhanzel said. Since the district’s mask mandate was enacted, it has sent home approximately 20 people to quarantine, she said.
Per Public Health guidelines in traditional classroom settings, quarantines are no longer required if two people who are wearing masks interact with each other and one of them is COVID-positive, officials said.
“Not having to send people home just because of exposure has been huge and so, for us, a mask mandate made that major switch, and school is as normal as it can be at this point,” she said.
Public Health officials continue working with schools to navigate coronavirus response and prevention, Zachary said. The seven-member Public Health team devoted to schools responds to between 20 and 30 calls from school nurses every day and sees an average of 40 school-related COVID-19 cases reported daily through case investigation and contact tracing.
Generally, more parents are now refusing or are reluctant to cooperate with case investigation and contact tracing, she said.
“We are seeing a decrease in the amount of cases who are willing and able to fully participate in that process. Many of our cases are more willing to complete a survey form of the case investigation rather than speak with an actual case investigator,” Zachary said. “Although that’s a helpful option, often people are more able to participate through motivational interviewing skills as opposed to a self-survey.”
Additionally, county Public Health assists schools with quarantine notifications if needed and maintains a call line for schools that is available 24/7.
The county also continues to encourage unvaccinated residents to get their inoculations at one of more than 100 local COVID-19 vaccine providers. El Paso County’s vaccination rate remains one of the lowest among the state’s largest counties, with 68.4% of residents 12 and older vaccinated with at least one dose and 61.6% fully vaccinated, county data show.
Public Health launched its mobile outreach van last weekend, which can be used to conduct vaccinations at schools, officials said.
Officials said they expect to see vaccination rates increase as federal and state mandates go into effect in the coming months, as well as with the possible approval of a vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds.
Pfizer could submit its application to vaccinate this age group by the end of the month, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices could approve a vaccine for children as soon as the end of October, said Brenda Heimbach, director of El Paso County Public Health’s health services division.
County Public Health is reaching out to pediatrician’s offices to enroll as vaccine providers if they haven’t already done so, Heimbach said.
“Families tend to be comfortable with their pediatricians and what they advise, and so (we’re) hoping to have more ease of access for these younger folks,” she said.
Board of Health member Dr. Richard Vu, founder of Matthews-Vu Medical Group, said he would like to see the county help get vaccine supply to local school nurses so they too can administer the shots.
This article has been updated to clarify quarantine requirements in traditional school settings.