Douglas County school virus guidance remains in yellow tier; Lawrence school board members want deeper discussion on usefulness of guidance

photo by: Website screenshot/Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department

Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department announced Thursday its guidance to schools would remain in the yellow tier for an eighth straight week.

Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health’s guidance for schools operating during the COVID-19 pandemic will remain constant for an eighth straight week, despite again moving in the right direction in key indicators.

However, some Lawrence school board members recently questioned the health department’s guidance and whether the criteria the department is using is the best information available.

The health department on Thursday announced the guidance would remain in the yellow tier, which recommends schools use hybrid learning options and prohibit “high-risk” athletic competitions and activities. The color-coded guidance is meant to help county school districts navigate reopening schools and conducting activities as the pandemic continues into the fall semester.

But key indicators that drive the guidance have again moved in the right direction and are close to reaching benchmarks that would allow for the department’s recommendation to return to its green tier, which is the lowest threat level.

“We are hopeful these numbers continue to trend in the right way, and I think it’s indicative of the measures we’ve taken and our community’s response,” said Dr. Thomas Marcellino, Douglas County’s local health officer. “We are grateful for people and businesses for exhibiting good mask compliance and practicing social distancing.”

According to the health department’s data released on Thursday, the average positivity rate for the virus in the county has fallen to 5.2%, a drop from 5.8% last week. The average positivity rate is just slightly above the benchmark of 5%, which would help lead to a drop to the green tier.

While the average number of new cases in the county has risen to 18, which is up from the 14 reported last week, the health department’s data shows the number is again dropping, which could also lead to a drop to the green tier.

Douglas County communities have also seen a decrease in its local positivity rate. Lawrence’s rate has fallen to 4.6%, Eudora’s rate has fallen to 6.8%, and Lecompton’s rate has fallen to zero. However, Baldwin City saw it’s local rate increase to 6.4%.

The trends appear to indicate the health department’s guidance could soon move to the green tier, which would allow for in-person classes and all activities and athletics to continue as long as standard public health measures are taken.

In August, the guidance was in the green tier. But the health department upgraded to the yellow tier on Aug. 27 after seeing a spike in average new cases per day, which was largely due to the University of Kansas’ testing of students and faculty. At its peak, the 14-day average of new cases per day reached up to the low 40s, but it began to decline at the beginning of September.

Since then, a decline in the average positivity rate and number of cases has generally continued but not enough to move back into the green tier.

The health department’s up-to-date school guidance can be found on its website, Department officials said the guidance will be updated each Thursday.

Lawrence school board members want to discuss guidance criteria

While Lawrence schools are set to begin allowing some students to attend classes in person again on Monday, school board members said earlier this week they have concerns about the guidance from the local health department and how it matches up to state data.

Board member Shannon Kimball specifically called into question whether the local health guidance to schools was even useful to school districts. She said during the board’s meeting on Monday that she felt “let down” by local public health officials because local health department does not use incidence rates, which notes the amount of new cases per 100,000 people. She said she’s heard experts say that is the most useful information for understanding the threat of virus spread in the community.

Meanwhile, Board President Kelly Jones said she had concerns that the district was not following the health department’s guidance with “the most conservative approach.” She also said she had concerns about an increase of cases throughout the state and discrepancies between the state and local health departments’ methodologies of following the virus.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment operates a map of incidence rates in state counties, showing the vast majority of counties, including Douglas County, having a “red” incidence rate between Sept. 27 and Oct. 10. That means those counties have more than 151 new cases per 100,000 people during that time period. Douglas County’s listed rate is 227.

Dr. Jennifer Schrimsher, an infectious disease specialist for LMH Health, said in a video the local health department released that the local and state methodologies are actually similar. However, she said the state data only looks at a certain period of two weeks, while the local data looks at a rolling average of two weeks.

“We’re using a two-week block that moves along with us,” she said. “That gives us a more up to date idea of how things are going and it allows us to see trends a little bit better or sooner.”

photo by: Webpage screenshot/Kansas Department of Health and Environment

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s incidence rate map shows Douglas County in the red tier.

Jones said she wants to have a deeper discussion on the issue during a separate meeting because it appears the state’s guidance is showing Douglas County schools should not be in person, while the county guidance suggests they can.

It’s unclear when this meeting may take place. Jones told the Journal-World Thursday the board is considering a special meeting, but if that does not happen the issue will be on the board’s next regular meeting agenda.

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