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As school cases rose, county health department narrowed definition of COVID on campuses

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Summit County

With mandatory masks on faces at two Park City elementary schools, nurses, district employees and parents are asking how schools count COVID cases.

Two weeks ago, heading into the Halloween weekend, Summit County Health Director Phil Bondurant explained how active COVID-19 cases are counted in schools.

“A  COVID case is one that has been lab confirmed and school cases considered as one that's been lab confirmed and has been in the schools within 48 hours of that lab confirmation,” Bondurant said.

Case counting determines when to activate the county’s emergency mask mandate. By county health order, masks are required at a school when 2% of its population tests positive for the virus within a 2-week period.

Bondurant’s case-counting definition also came up Oct. 29 when county Nursing Director Derek Moss and COVID case manager Susan Mottice met with Park City School District nurses.

A personal recording of the meeting was provided to KPCW. In it, school nurses chuckle as one says, “I don’t know what we’re counting and not counting – it’s all changed a lot in the last few days.”

A nurse says, “I don’t understand where the 48 hours came from in terms of active case-counting in schools.” Moss and Mottice say it complies with the Utah Department of Health.

The nurses ask where they can find that on the state health department web site. Mottice says she doesn’t know.

Moss said this week that counting in schools isn’t his purview - his and Mottice’s roles involve epidemiology issues like contact tracing.

“This was a question with, you know, considering the two days, that we didn't have a direct answer for; that wasn't something we had control over so I apologize; that might have been confusing.”

He said directing schools how to count cases falls to Bondurant as health officer.

“What counts as a case, when we reach the threshold…those are metrics that are determined by the health officer," Moss said. "It’s very much on the mind of all the school nurses and school administrators, you know, and so I'm trying to address everything I can. When it comes to any of the ‘when do we do anything’ with the school itself, that has to do with the health officer, that has to do with the superintendent, the school board.”

According to the state health department, school cases include people who have been in a school for more than 15 minutes while they had symptoms or within 14 days before getting COVID.

Using 2 days instead of 14 to determine which cases are active in a school yields lower case numbers.

Bondurant declined to comment on why the county’s definition differed from the state’s, or where the 48-hour limit came from. Schools superintendent Jill Gildea said the schools don’t set public health policy.

The discrepancies in counting come amid rising cases in schools and a KPCW report November 5th revealing that the mask mandate was supposed to begin at Parley’s Park Elementary School Nov 1st but wasn’t enforced as the school instead promoted parent choice on wearing masks.

Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson is investigating why the mandate wasn’t followed at Parley’s. This week, the school begins two more weeks of masks as cases remain above 2%. And Trailside Elementary School just started 14 days of mask-wearing after hitting the 2% threshold last week.

Ecker Hill Middle School is also nearing the 2% threshold of positive cases.

According to Summit County health data, COVID cases among kids in all age groups are up significantly since November 1, with the biggest increase in those under 4 years old.

Parents recently launched a petition asking the school district to enforce the mandate, and have prepared a call to action urging parents to attend the Nov 16th school board meeting to voice concerns.

Dr. Alison Delgado, a pediatrician at Wasatch Pediatrics and the parent of a Parley’s Park student, sent KPCW a statement affirmed by all doctors in that practice that says in part, “The daily case counts should not be done in hopes to keep the numbers low enough to prevent children from having to wear their masks. It should be an honest count each day, including weekends and holidays, to ensure that everyone’s health remains the top priority.”

The county health department posted a statement on its website Nov. 12th saying it will begin counting school cases using the state’s 14-day window.