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Should schools close amid surge in COVID-19 cases? Infectious disease specialist weighs in

Posted at 10:02 PM, Oct 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-23 11:46:51-04

SALT LAKE CITY — School districts across the state are wrapping up their first quarter since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.

As the daily COVID-19 case totals continue to surge within the community, some are asking if schools should close their doors.

In 1976, Dr. Jay Jacobson started his work with the University of Utah hospital as an infectious disease specialist.

With more than 40 years of studying diseases, Dr. Jacobson has seen a few pandemics come and go.

“I think the virus is not terribly different from other viruses we’ve seen,” said Dr. Jacobson.

School doors typically remain open during the seasonal flu pandemic and though there are similarities among viruses, Dr. Jacobson said one critical distinction with COVID-19 makes all the difference.

“For influenza we have a control factor with a vaccine,” said Dr. Jacobson. “With COVID we don’t have that.”

Contact tracing and testing have become critical, especially because having COVID-19 doesn’t always mean showing symptoms.

Granite School District attributes their low COVID-19 case percentage to its ability to notify students within four to six hours of a positive case or exposure.

“We are finding that 90% of our cases are coming from family and social circumstances off of school property,” said Ben Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District.

As the third-largest school district in the State, Horsley said they have about 63,000 students and 8,000 employees.

Eliminate those who are taking classes online and you still have about 58,000 students walking through the halls.

On Utah’s Coronavirus website, Granite School District is considered third-highest in total active cases — reporting 182 as of Thursday.

With their population size, that shows a different perspective and a relatively low percentage of .03%

“That’s a case or a case and a half per school,” said Horsley. “We’re very optimistic because our numbers look great.”

It’s outside of school walls that Horsley worries students are contracting the virus.

As of 2019 U.S. Census estimate report, 1.16 million people live in Salt Lake County.

The Salt Lake County Health Department reports 6,929 active COVID-19 cases as of Thursday — making the percentage of the population with the virus currently at .06%

“Schools and the community do not live in separate worlds,” said Dr. Jacobson. “We want schools to be the safest they can be and we want to drive rates down in the community.”

There is no absolute open or close decision when it comes to education, said Dr. Jacobson, though he did mention it is worrisome to have schools remain open while community spread is very high.

The trend schools and communities really need to look at closely, according to the long-time infectious disease specialist, is the percentage increase in COVID19 cases spreading.

“We really need to stop thinking in terms of this is a risk and this is not—everything comes with a risk,” said Dr. Jacobson.