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As COVID-19 metrics worsen, Billings officials say 'large outbreaks' in schools have been prevented

As COVID-19 metrics worsen, Billings officials say 'large outbreaks' in schools have been prevented


Despite a worsening COVID-19 case load in Yellowstone County, local schools have avoided becoming hubs for spreading the disease, school and health officials said Monday.  

“You’re really not seeing what you’d think of as a classic, large outbreak,” Yellowstone County health officer John Felton told Billings Public Schools trustees. “A reasonable description is that schools are holding their own.”

Public health officials staked out four metrics to inform school operation decisions earlier this year.

  • One of those that measures wider community transmission of COVID-19 has already hit red-flag levels. New cases have continued to spike, hitting 68 per 100,000 last week in Yellowstone County — far above the warning threshold of 25 per 100,000. 
  • More recently the positivity rate approached its warning threshold, hitting 14.8% for the week ending Oct. 10. That's almost at the 15% threshold health officials staked out. 
  • But the more subjective metrics haven't reached alarming levels. The percentage of cases among school-aged children has been as high as 19% but bounced up and down, and was at 12% during the last data collection period. 
  • School cases have popped up, officials said, indicative of the inevitability of positives among students and staff with wider community spread. But there's been no indication that they've sparked outbreaks in schools, something that could lead to the shutdown of classrooms or school buildings. 

Trustee Russ Hall noted a disconnect between those metrics and gossip in school halls, per his children. 

“The rumors are everywhere in every school,” he said. “When should they actually be worried about having to stay home from school?”

So far, Felton said, the greater threat to school operations is that too many teachers and staff would be sick or quarantined to have in-person instruction; a scenario that has played out in smaller Montana schools.  

Superintendent Greg Upham said that in the last week, positive cases at elementary schools have remained at one or two cases per school that records a case. The highest new caseload for a middle school was four, and the highest in a high school was six. 

State report

Yellowstone County has had large numbers of cases tabbed as "under investigation" in a state report. Those cases have been determined to be among students or school staff, but aren't assigned to a school.

Felton admitted that the interaction between contact tracing and state reporting makes for a "clunky system."

An earlier item in the reporting process includes a notification about whether the positive person attends or works at a school. But more details aren't fleshed out until a contact tracing interview, which is occurring several days after the person is told by their medical providers who tested them about the positive test. 

“It is true that we are behind,” on contact tracing, Felton said, which helps explain the gap in the state report. 

Both Felton and Upham argued that school principals have a good handle on case loads in their school, regardless of the state report or contact tracing. 

School administrators have been deputized to conduct contact tracing, which allows them to notify students or staff in their schools. In practice, they're getting their original notification from parents or school employees directly, which is faster than RiverStone Health. 

Felton said that RiverStone has hired about 50 contact tracers, a figure that should be more like 90 given the case load in the county. 

Felton continued to maintain that Montana's public health laws are "extremely restrictive," limiting the agency from releasing information about school positives. Other county health departments in Montana have released non-identifying information about positive cases linked to schools. 

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