11 virus outbreaks in NJ schools: What it takes to close a building
Schools in New Jersey have reported 11 confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks involving 43 people who've tested positive for the coronavirus.
The state Health Department has unveiled a new online dashboard that will keep track of the number of outbreaks and individual COVID-19 cases in Garden State Schools.
Gov. Phil Murphy said the dashboard balances public transparency and the privacy of those attending and working in schools. The schools are not publicly identified — just the county that they're in — but Murphy said a school community would already know if they've had an outbreak, alluding to the disruption that such a development would cause.
“Our overarching aim remains ensuring that our schools do not themselves become the epicenters of new outbreaks," he said.
Most of the outbreaks have been in South Jersey counties, with three in Cape May and two each in Burlington and Gloucester. Outbreaks have also been counted in Bergen, Ocean, Passaic and Sussex.
Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said an outbreak “is considered two or more laboratory confirmed COVID-19 among students or staff with onsets within a 14-day period.”
She said when a positive COVID-19 case is reported involving a student, a teacher or school employee, local health officials will determine if a case is associated with in-school transmission.
“In-school transmission is considered the transmission of the virus between students and or school staff that occurs on school property in the context of academic activities," she said.
The Health Department has previously recommended steps to take in a COVID-19 outbreak.
• If there is one confirmed case, the school can remain open while anyone in close contact with the person should stay home for 14 days .
• If there are two or more cases in the same classroom, the school can remain open but any close contacts of the case are excluded from school for 14 days. Local health officials would make a recommendation on whether the entire class should be considered exposed.
• If there are two or more cases within 14 days linked to an exposure outside of the school setting, the school can remain open.
• If there are two or more cases within 14 days linked together by a school activity, local health officials will make recommendations on whether to close the school.
• If a significant community outbreak is impacting multiple staff, students and families, closure of the school for 14 days should be considered.
• If there are two or more cases within a two-week period that occur across multiple classrooms and a clear connection between the cases cannot be easily identified, it’s recommended the school be closed for 14 days.
Persichilli said local health officials have significant data and knowledge “about the impact of COVID-19 in their communities, and that’s important because it can inform local planning and response actions.”
Murphy agreed that local school and health officials, not the state, should make closure decisions because “they’re on the ground, it’s their backyard, they are closer to the point of attack than we are.”
Murphy said the tracking system will help to stop the spread of the virus because “we have in place the protocols and guidance to ensure that when identified, a case is removed as quickly and carefully as possible from the building environment.”
He also said to have a total of 43 COVID cases a month after school has started “is a pretty darn good result, probably as good as I would have hoped.”
Then he added: “The last thing we want to do is pat ourselves on the back and wake up the next day and find that number went up by multiples.”
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com