Shelby County Health Department will not release school-specific COVID-19 case counts

Updated: Aug. 19, 2020 at 7:34 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter went before Shelby County Commissioners on Wednesday to give an update on the COVID-19 pandemic.

She also explained why the department and the state are not releasing specific information about confirmed COVID-19 cases in schools.

“We don’t want to breach the privacy of any child and create issues with stigma,” she said. “However, we do release information to people who are at risk.”

After a pledge of transparency by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee on COVID-19 in K-12 schools, parent groups like Memphis Lift said the state’s backtracking position is putting the health of students and families at risk.

“It’s critical that we know the numbers so we can make the best decision possible for our families. It’s a must,” said Sarah Carpenter, Executive Director of Memphis Lift in a news release. “At a moment when parents across the country are trying to decide whether it’s safe to send their children back into school buildings, facts and transparency have never been more important. Thousands of children have already been infected since schools returned to in-person learning this month, and countless others have been exposed. Who are we protecting by keeping these numbers private?”

Tuesday, the Tennessee Department of Health announced it would release county-by-county information on the number of children with COVID-19 infections. The Tennessee Department of Education is also listing changes to school schedules based on confirmed cases.

Haushalter said given those different types of information it would be possible to “triangulate” information and determine the identity of a positive student.

“You could connect those dots and potentially identify a child in a specific classroom,” she said.

Haushalter said it’s her hope the health department will be able to report a number of child COVID-19 cases per municipality in the county.

State law requires that labs and healthcare providers report positive cases of COVID-19 to the Shelby County Health Department. But schools themselves are only recommended to report positive cases by county health directive. Haushalter said that is something that could change.

“We are looking at whether or not we want to require them to call and the time frame we want them to report to families as well,” she said.

The director said it’s possible the department could make a public statement about a school outbreak that was larger in scope and of greater community concern. But a handful of unrelated cases inside a school would not fit that description.

“If this is a broader community issue, we are going to make announcements,” she said.

Haushalter said school cases are different than nursing home clusters, which have been publicly reported for months, because nursing homes are an at-risk population already.

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