DENVER – The chief education officer in one El Paso County school district said Thursday they will not be reporting cases of the novel coronavirus to local public health authorities, which they are obligated to do under state law, as the risks of quarantine “far outweigh” the risks of disease among children.
In a letter addressed to families, District 49 Chief Education Officer Peter Hilts said the community “saw first-hand the damaging effects of an overzealous quarantine regimen,” that ultimately led to “widespread displacement into online learning,” despite aggressive masking, tracing and quarantine protocols.
After 18 months of the pandemic, Hilts wrote, “It is our judgement, backed by months of student and community observation and interaction, with corresponding experiential data, that the risks of quarantine far outweigh the risks of the disease. That is why we will not facilitate voluntary reporting and contact tracing that are designed to direct healthy individuals into quarantine and isolation.”
But during a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Jared Polis said schools must report COVID-19 cases to local public health agencies.
“That is the law and that is unambiguous,” Polis said.
Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, expanded on that point during a news conference a day later, saying, “State statute and state regulations outline that cases of reportable conditions, as well as suspected and confirmed outbreaks, are required to be reported by law.”
Hilts, however, argued that the guidance from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) is not unambiguous.
He cited text from the CDPHE's Practical Guide for Operationalizing CDC’s School Guidance which previously stated schools and child care facilities were “encouraged” to report single cases of COVID-19 of which they become aware.
The CDPHE’s website has since been updated with the following text: “Per 6 CCR 1009-1, schools and child care facilities are also required to report single cases of which they become aware to public health, even if testing was performed elsewhere. Schools are able to disclose this information to public health without prior written consent under FERPA’s health or safety emergency exception, because a person with COVID-19 represents a potential threat to the health and safety of others at the school. This is true even if there is not an outbreak.”
The updated guidance says schools and child care providers are required to report all outbreaks to the local public health agency of CDPHE within four hours.
State law requires that diseases such as smallpox, the plague, and others “shall be reported by the physician or other health care provider and by other persons either treating or having knowledge of a reportable disease, including, but not limited to … persons in charge of schools (including school nursing staff), licensed day care centers, or any other person providing testing and/or counseling.”
Herlihy told Chalkbeat Colorado on Thursday she hoped Hilts' decision was a misunderstanding as, “We would want to ensure they recognize the requirements in the statute and what their obligations are.”
From his part, Hilts wrote the district is continuing to work closely with El Paso County Public Health and will discuss with local public health officials next steps should an outbreak occur.
Further, Hilts said, once vaccines become available for kids younger than 12, the district will host mobile vaccination clinics just as they have done for people 12 and up.
The chief education officer also wrote they continue to encourage proper hygiene, rigorous school cleaning schedules, and ask that everyone who is not feeling well stay home until they feel better.
Additionally, Hilts said the district has detected and responded to individual positive cases “by following common-sense measures without sending healthy individuals into unnecessary and disruptive quarantines.”
“Far from ignoring science or safety, we have determined that overreacting to the possibility of transmission has been bad for learning, bad for mental health, and ultimately far worse for our students than the low-level medical risk of a virus that rarely causes any significant issues for children,” he wrote in the letter, urging families to stay informed and attentive to conditions in the community.
Data from El Paso County Public Health shows kids ages 0-19 account for only 157 COVID-19 hospitalizations, compared to 295 hospitalizations for those in the 20-29 age group; 355 for people aged 30-39; and 427 hospitalizations for adults 40-49. Hospitalizations only go up from there.
Only two deaths have been reported in El Paso County since the pandemic arrived here on March 5 in the 0-19 age group, the data shows.
Local public health data is on par with data from the rest of the country.
An estimate from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) shows less than 2% of COVID-19 cases among kids result in hospitalizations. Mortality rates for kids due to COVID-19 are even more rare – the pediatric group reports less than 0.03% of all child COVID-19 cases have resulted in death.
Still, public health officials across the country are warning about the steep increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations among children.
ABC News reported Tuesday hospitalization rates among children are 4.6 times higher than they were just five weeks ago, putting pediatric hospitalizations on the same level with those seen last year.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, told ABC News last week more cases in children will eventually lead to more hospitalizations.
As of Aug. 12, the AAP reported a “continuing substantial increase” in COVID-19 cases among children, saying it had now recorded over 121,000 cases of the virus among kids – a 5% increase from two weeks ago.
Since the pandemic began, children accounted for 14.4% of all weekly COVID-19 cases. As of Aug. 12, children represented 18% of all weekly cases, the group said.
COVID-19 vaccines for children under the age of 12 are expected to receive Emergency Use Authorization by midwinter, US health officials said in mid-July.
About 60% of U.S. kids ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.