'You're gonna have to ... put some pressure on these people': Kansas school COVID cluster turns deadly
A COVID-19 outbreak at a Kansas school has turned deadly as health and education officials urge vaccinations, testing and masking amid a growth in active outbreaks in educational settings.
A week after Education Commissioner Randy Watson announced the death of a middle school student from COVID-19, new information shows that someone has died in an active school cluster. There is no indication whether that person was a student.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Wednesday reported 13 new school clusters over the past week, raising the number of active outbreaks to 79. Those active coronavirus outbreaks have been connected to 648 cases, two hospitalizations and one death.
Sports in Kansas have an additional 12 active outbreaks with 84 cases and one hospitalization. Colleges and universities have four active outbreaks with 80 cases.
Watson didn't say what school the deceased child attended or whether the child was infected at school.
KDHE data released Friday showed a newly reported death in the 10-17 age group.
A KDHE spokesperson has said no additional information on the death will be released. In the past, the agency has released the age and month of death for two children who died of COVID-19.
The health department on Wednesday publicly identified the following education-related clusters and their case counts for the past 14 days:
- Sterling College in Rice County has five cases.
- Tabor College in Marion County has 25 cases.
- Anthony Elementary School's fifth grade in Harper County has 13 cases.
- Goessel Elementary School in Marion County has six cases.
- Great Bend High School in Barton County has five cases.
- Hillsboro Elementary School in Marion County has six cases.
- Newton High School in Harvey County has five cases.
- Wichita's The Independent Lower School in Sedgwick County has 30 cases.
- DeSoto High School athletics in Johnson County has seven cases.
State data shows case rates are declining, but hospitalizations are rising.
The KDHE reported 7,003 new cases, including 1,974 new cases among children, in the past seven days. Those are down from 8,235 new cases, including 2,368 children, for the previous seven-day period.
The agency reported 259 new hospitalizations, including 14 children, over the past seven days. Those numbers are up from 221 new hospitalizations with 12 children over the previous period.
While positive test rates are generally declining in Kansas, school-aged children continue to have the highest positivity rates, according to federal data from the White House pandemic task force.
School task force talks COVID data
Marci Nielsen, one of Gov. Laura Kelly's pandemic advisers, shared COVID-19 metrics with the governor's Safer Classrooms Workgroup on Wednesday.
Nielsen called it a "relief" that cases are starting to fall, but "we still have fairly high death rates."
Vaccination, testing and masking are the three primary preventive measures for schools, Nielsen said. However, Kansas youths are vaccinated at a rate below the national average, some districts don't have testing programs and many schools don't require masks.
About 24% of school district aren't interested in KDHE testing protocols or are unresponsive to state inquiries. Only 115 school districts reported testing numbers over the past week; the rest either aren't testing or don't report to the state.
Just 16% of schools report requiring masks for all or most students. Those districts educate about 43% of the schoolkid population. Still, a majority of school districts haven't shared their mask policy with state officials.
Of the districts that had active outbreaks a week ago, about 29% reported that they had masks required. State metrics show outbreaks tended to be bigger at schools where masks weren't required.
Farah Ahmed, a KDHE epidemiologist, said the agency plans to launch a public dashboard on Friday that maps case and vaccination rates among school-aged children with local school districts.
"We just want to be as transparent as possible on what is happening in school-aged children," she said.
The numbers won't be compiled from school reporting. Rather, the dashboard will use data that is already available on ages and locations to determine rates within school district boundaries.
"We are really, really hoping this just puts more data in the hands of local public health officials and local school district officials to help them make informed decisions," Ahmed said.
Nielsen shared a new study on mask policies and COVID-19 outbreaks in K-12 schools in Arizona. The research, published Friday in a CDC weekly report, found that schools without a mask requirement were 3.5 times more likely to have disease outbreaks.
The same weekly morbidity and mortality report had a second, nationwide study looked into pediatric COVID-19 cases in counties with and without school mask requirements, Nielsen said. The analysis indicated that pediatric case rates were smaller in counties with school mask requirements.
Watson, the education commissioner, said that testing helps keep children in school. He pointed to St. George Elementary School in the Rock Creek school district, which had a large outbreak early into the school year. They implemented the KDHE's "Test to Stay and Learn" program.
"By just testing and knowing who was carrying virus and who was not, that school district saved 782 days that would have been out of school," Watson said.
The voluntary program is designed to keep close contacts in school safely instead of quarantining.
"If there is an outbreak in a classroom, or on a football team, or in a school, we can rapid test you and if you're negative we can keep you in school and there's little disruption," he said.
Doctors react to Kansas middle school student's COVID death
During last week's workgroup meeting, pediatrician Vernon Mills called for public health officials to be more "aggressive" and to "create tension" following the middle school student's death.
"You're gonna have to probably put some pressure on these people that make bad decisions, and let them know up front that you're going to be held responsible for the decisions that they make," he said. "And I'm not talking about legal issues, I'm talking about the kid you just talked about who died in middle school because they got COVID.
"I'm not above that, putting it right in their face, because I think that's the only way that sometimes it gets across to people that this is not a game. This is not, you know, a political contest, where we are all going to go back at the end of the day and just lick our wounds if somebody loses.
"We're talking about somebody is going to die because of the decision you made."
The middle schooler was the third Kansas child to die of COVID-19 and the first from the 10-17 age group.
Dana Hawkinson, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Kansas Health System, said last week that the student's death is a tragedy, and even more so if they were at least 12 years old and eligible for vaccination.
"Any loss of life, whether it's older patients or these younger patients, is completely preventable," he said.
Children as young as 12 are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.
Pfizer is expected to ask for emergency use authorization for children aged 5-11 in coming days, officials said during a Tuesday media briefing from The University of Kansas Health System. An EUA decision may come before Thanksgiving, said Kevin Ault, an OBGYN at the health system and a member of the CDC vaccine advisory committee.