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Health Experts Concerned About Privacy As Schools Report COVID-19 Cases

Gov. Mike DeWine has said the state will soon require schools to regularly report positive COVID-19 cases to the public.

But the move has local infectious disease experts concerned about patient privacy.

Drs. Amy Ray at MetroHealth and Joan Zoltanski at University Hospitals agree that schools should be transparent about numbers of new cases in order to keep the public informed – but should take care not to give any information that could identify individuals.

To do protect privacy, Zoltanski recommends the information be reported on a local level, such as by city or school district.

“Some reasonable-sized data set where you can make an educated guess about that population,” Zoltanski said.

Schools should also refrain from giving specific details, such as ‘a volleyball coach,’ Ray said. 

“There’s a stigma around being a coronavirus case,” she said. “Historically, this happens with emerging infectious diseases every time. And we have to avoid labeling, particularly as it applies to school-age children, as a form of bullying. This is a real concern.”

So far, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health is investigating 23 school-related cases, but officials have declined to provide any specific information until the new state order is released. 

When it comes to developing a response to a potential outbreak at a school, administrators should consult their individual aggregated data trends, along with county data, Ray said.

Many schools have based reopening plans thus far on the state’s color-coded county health advisory system, and there will be a learning curve for school officials as they prepare to make further decisions, she said.

“It will be a challenge to adopt sort of the mindset of thinking numerically about community rates, and whether the color scheme for public awareness is sufficient and granular enough to keep students safe remains to be seen,” Ray said.

Both Ray and Zoltanski said school data will likely mirror countywide data trends.

“If the county numbers go up very high, school numbers will be high, and vice versa,” Zoltanski said.

People should be cautious not to get a sense of security when comparing COVID-19 case data at different schools across the county, Ray added.

“Think about every human interaction that you have as that person being infected,” she said. “One thing is for certain about COVID-19, and that is, when people get together in close environments is when transmission occurs.”

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.

Anna joined ideastream in 2019, where she reports on health news for WCPN and WVIZ in Cleveland. She has also served as an associate producer for NewsDepth. Before that, Anna was a 2019 Carnegie-Knight News21 fellow at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.