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Utah parents, school administrators frustrated with dangerous delays in COVID-19 notifications

Posted at 9:39 PM, Nov 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-11 23:39:41-05

SALT LAKE CITY — Some Utah parents say they’ve found out about a COVID-19 exposure at their children’s school several days after their kids were supposed to start their quarantine.

Some say the contact tracing is so slow, it's taking a week to two weeks to send notifications

As COVID-19 cases have spiked this fall, schools have increasingly closed in-person classes in favor of at-home learning.

Layton’s Northridge High School is one of the many schools in Utah that have closed their doors to students.

​"Northridge is still under quarantine, and the cases actually keep going up," said Chad Corbitt, whose daughter attends Northridge.

Just over a week ago, when the school closed, Corbitt received a troubling email. He learned his daughter had come into close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient.

"The letter indicated that she should have been quarantining since the previous Tuesday,” Corbitt said.

The letter, dated November 3, instructs Corbitt’s daughter to start quarantine on October 27, a full week earlier. It left Corbitt wondering why it took so long to be notified.

"The contact tracing is not effective at all if it takes over 7 days to get a letter. I mean those 7 days you could be transmitting,” Corbitt said. “I was really upset.”

A Davis School District teacher, who asked not to be identified, said the same thing happened to her.

"On Friday, November 6 the COVID aid came and told me, 'Okay I just heard from [the] Health Department. You guys probably should have been quarantined’,” the anonymous teacher said.

The teacher said she may have been exposed to the virus on October 27 and wasn’t told until nearly two weeks later.

Contact tracing has also been a challenge in the Canyons School District.

“We do things as quickly as possible, but this is a very complex process that we follow due to contact tracing, and we want to do it right,” said Canyons School District spokesman Jeff Haney.

Haney said schools begin immediate contact tracing investigations once the local health department notifies them of positive COVID-19 cases.

"Of course there's a lot of students, and they go outside and play at recess, sometimes they sit with different people at lunch. That's why the contact tracing process has been such a challenge,” Haney said.

Haney told FOX 13 the school district issues notification letters as quickly as possible, but the date for a student, teacher or other employee was supposed to begin quarantine is almost always several days past.

"You would factor in from the last date of exposure,” Haney explained.

Here’s why: a contact tracing investigation begins with the date a person reported being sick and getting tested for COVID-19. After that, the test results can sometimes take three to five days to come back.

According to Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp, the goal is to identify and notify the schools affected by a confirmed case of COVID-19 within 24-48 hours of receiving a positive test result.

When a positive COVID-19 case is connected to a school, the local health department may need to make thousands of phone calls, and that’s a resource-intensive process that can take a matter of days.

​"We're all working at full capacity, and as cases increase there is concern that we're going to have burnout,” Rupp said.

The process is expected to speed up with the availability of COVID-19 tests that return results in 15 minutes and a “shared model” of contact tracing.

"That initial laboratory delay is likely going to go away. So, I think it's going to improve as our technology options grow,” Rupp said.

Canyons School District also has a new nurse to help with the process.

"Our nurses have been working nonstop and we needed that extra set of hands to help us through this,” Haney said.

Fortunately for Corbitt’s daughter, she was able to end her quarantine after 36 hours because she tested negative for COVID-19. But the problem with delayed notifications remains.

"I get where a lot of the issues are coming from, but for it to be effective it needs to be fast enough to actually prevent any further occurrences,” Corbitt said.

Since Northridge High is using online learning, at least the Corbitts know there won’t be another chance of a school-related COVID-19 exposure any time soon.