When the percentage of COVID-19 positive cases registered, it stunned pediatrician Dr. Allison Eckard.
Charleston County Public Schools, which opened for face-to-face learning in early September, recorded a 1% positivity rate during the fall semester.
For Eckard, who is an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina and is the division director for infectious diseases, the low number dispelled a lot of the fear and preconceived ideas about reopening schools in person.
“I really was just not in favor of this initially and now I am a believer,” Eckard told the MUSC’s Catalyst News. “Kids need to be in school, and it’s safe.”
One look at the district’s dashboard illustrates her point. Of all the total cases to date within the school system, the most listed for any one category is 126 for virtual/remote learners. No individual school has registered 50 positive cases and many have hovered in the single digits. One school this week reported 7, but the majority have between 0 and 2.
There are approximately 50,000 students and more than 6,000 faculty and staff members in the district of 87 schools, though charter schools were not part of the study. It was reported during the fall that the district had 70% of its students attending school in class.
Eckerd told the Catalyst News that any spread she was seeing from the contact tracing they had done was primarily from teacher to teacher or teacher to student and not students spreading the virus to teachers. “There have only been a handful of cases that may have been transmitted within the schools and within the classroom. There have been cases, there’s no doubt, but the majority of them have been acquired outside of the classroom.”
The next few weeks might be telling for those schools. The county numbers “skyrocketed” after the holiday – with a two-week incidence rate of 571 cases per 100,000 individuals (A low number would be between 0 and 50). The positivity rate was an off-the-charts 23.9%. But Eckard says the number is beginning to trend downward.
She also told District Administration that the data should be looked at cautiously.
“Positivity rate is just one measure of disease activity in a community and inherently has a lot of limitations/flaws — it depends on who is being tested, how many people are tested,” Eckard said. “It must only be used in conjunction with several other measures.”
Across the state of South Carolina, there have been more than 5,700 cases among students and just over 2,300 cases among employees in both public and charter schools, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). Those numbers are reported for those who “physically attend school on a regular basis” and who attended school-sponsored activities.
For schools operating in person, there has been concern about potential spread with students who may not show signs of having the virus. But Eckard said from the research she has done, she has not seen that occurring.
“There is a possibility that there are some missed cases among students who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms and are not tested,” she told DA. “But, that is not the most important part of the data—what matters is the transmission occurring within the classrooms, regardless of the absolute number of cases. I have scoured the data for weeks and vetted the data with our local DHEC and CCSD. There are just very little evidence of transmission in the classrooms.”
Schools have shown that with proper social distancing measures, sanitizing solutions, continual cleaning and improved ventilation, potential spread can be minimized. In Charleston, the Catalyst News noted the installment of “60 miles of plexiglass” and “200,000 items of personal protective equipment.”
The Charleston district has worked with the South Carolina DHEC as well as MUSC to forge a strong overall prevention plan that includes robust contact tracing for those who are close to a positive individual, testing of those who show symptoms, and vaccinations for their nurses. Teachers and staff in the state will become eligible to receive vaccines as part of Phase 1b, which will happen after 70% of long-term care residents and healthcare workers have received them.
Eckard notably is one of a number of physicians who have been examining children with the rare multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) and experience complications from COVID-19. The MUSC Children’s Hospital is using a new treatment called remestemcel-L to try to quell the disease in which children show very high fevers in the 105-106-degree range.