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3 COVID-19 outbreaks reported at Prince William County schools

‘Multiple’ possible outbreaks under investigation, according to health district official, as overall quarantines decline

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Although the number of Prince William County students isolating and quarantining is down about one-third from last week, the school division has had at least three COVID-19 outbreaks since Aug. 1, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

As of Friday, Oct. 8, VDH was reporting outbreaks at Potomac High School in Woodbridge and at Sudley and Yorkshire elementary schools, both in Manassas. 

The Potomac High School outbreak involves 11 cases, while the outbreak at Sudley Elementary involves 22 cases and the outbreak at Yorkshire, five, according to the outbreak dashboard on the VDH website, which is updated on Fridays.

An outbreak is defined as two or more laboratory-confirmed cases that are linked to a common exposure in the same setting. To be considered “epidemiologically linked,” the cases must occur within 14 days and must involve people who were not considered close contacts outside school, according to the VDH definition of an outbreak.

The outbreaks are the first reported in the school division since the new school year began Aug. 23. The school division has reported more than 1,000 cases among students and staff since August, however, and additional outbreaks may be under investigation, according to Prince William Health District epidemiologist Sean Morris.

In an email last week, Morris said there have been “multiple outbreaks” in local K-12 schools that had not yet been reported by VDH. 

“There are multiple outbreaks that have occurred or are occurring in K-12 schools,” Morris wrote. “We are working with the VDH central office data team to determine the cause of the discrepancy between the public dashboards.”

It’s not clear how many more Prince William County schools are being investigated for outbreaks. As of about 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 8, Morris had not yet responded to emails seeking clarification on the number of possible outbreaks under investigation.

According to the VDH outbreak surveillance team, the Prince William Health District has been experiencing a “laboratory lag issues” that have apparently slowed the reporting of possible outbreaks.

Investigating outbreaks can be a time-consuming process that involves interviewing people and examining lab reports to determine if cases are linked.

“In order to accurately report outbreaks … we ensure there are individual cases associated with each outbreak record. We manually identify cases connected to a specific outbreak from the individual case surveillance system (VEDSS) and add them to the outbreak surveillance system (VOSS),” the VDH outbreak surveillance team said in a recent email.

Overall school division isolation, quarantine numbers drop

As of Friday, Oct. 8, the number of students quarantining and isolating for COVID-19 at Prince William County’s 100 schools had dropped about 30% over the past week after doubling over the previous two weeks.

As of Oct. 8, there were 35 staff members and 161 students isolating for confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, down from 49 and 225, respectively, one week ago, a decrease of about 28%.

There were also 10 staff members and 881 students quarantining due to having a close contact with a positive or probable case of COVID-19 on Friday, Oct. 8, down from 12 and 1,428, respectively, last week. The number of students quarantining this week represents a decrease of about 38% from last week.

Health district acknowledges a rise in cases among school-age children

Morris acknowledged in an Oct. 2 email that the local health district has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases among school-aged children in recent weeks, especially among those under 12 who are too young to be vaccinated.

But he said trends are now “looking stabilized.” Still, the health district notes that Prince William County remains in a high level of community transmission, with 166 cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days, and that residents should “remain vigilant.”

“We understand [cases among school-age children] can change quickly and are continuing to maintain surveillance,” Morris wrote. 

“PWHD would encourage people to remain vigilant in their COVID precautions as we are still in high transmission: Mask indoors and outdoors, get vaccinated, avoid non-essential large indoor crowded events and stay home and seek testing if you feel ill,” he said.

“Communicable disease crosses populations and changes numbers quickly, so it is vital that we all protect ourselves and our community with these measures and put us in a good position going into the fall and winter,” Morris wrote.

Uptick in school-related cases

Morris said the rise in COVID-19 cases reported at public schools can be attributed mostly to large events where mitigation measures, such as masking and social distancing, are not followed.

“As individuals gather, a rise in cases [is] expected,” he wrote. “Large events and activities where control measures are not being followed (masking, distancing, etc.) create the greatest risk of an uptick in transmission.”

Morris said it’s also important to note that quarantining is an effort to stem the further spread of cases and that large numbers of students can be quarantined as a result of a single case.

The health district could not say, however, whether sports and extracurricular activities are driving the rise in cases and quarantines at local schools.

“Increased quarantines may be the result of larger exposures where more students may have come into contact with an individual case. Whether this is due to academic or extracurricular activities is variable,” he wrote.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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