New ‘coronameter’ data tracking designed to help schools make decisions as new year begins under COVID watch
Garfield County schools should have better information for decision-making related to the region’s risk of coronavirus spread, as several more schools returned to sessions this week — some in the classroom, and others in real-time online.
Public health officials in the county have devised a new method of calculating and tracking COVID-19 statistics that can help school officials, parents and others associated with the schools know which way to pivot.
Garfield Re-2 schools in New Castle, Silt and Rifle began the new school year Monday — in-person, but with strict public health practices in place, including mask requirements and daily temperature checks.
District 16 in Parachute/Battlement Mesa plans to follow suit Sept. 1. And, several private, charter and alternative schools in the area, including Two Rivers Community School, Yampah Mountain High School, St. Stephen Catholic School and Ambleside at Skylark in Glenwood Springs, have also now returned to the classroom, or are using a hybrid mix of in-person and online.
Online “distance learning” options are available in each of the schools for families who prefer to keep their children at home to help prevent disease spread.
Roaring Fork District schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt have taken a more cautious route, beginning the new year with a 100% distance learning model. Formal online instruction began this week, with a target date of Sept. 21 for a possible return to in-person learning.
To help in that decision-making process for schools, Garfield County Public Health this week unveiled its new “coronameter,” a graphical display that’s updated twice weekly.
It shows a color-coded dial with a needle indicating where the county is in terms of its risk for disease spread.
On one end of the dial is what state public health officials have termed “Protect Our Neighbors,” the least-restrictive phase for reopening businesses, schools, churches and allowing public gatherings.
That’s the “comfortable,” or blue zone, for purposes of the coronameter.
On the right side of the dial is the red alert “very high risk” level, more in line with the “Stay at Home” restrictions Colorado was under in March and April when the outbreak began.
In between are the “cautious” (yellow) and “concerned” (orange) alert levels, all depending on the case rate and other statistical measures.
So far this week, Garfield County is hovering between the “comfortable” and “cautious” range on the dial, based on the latest 14-day COVID-19 case totals, case rate per 100,000 people, test positivity rate and hospitalization rate.
That’s a huge change from just last month, when the county was seeing an alarming upward trend in new cases and its test positivity rate.
“Cases continue to go down and hold steady,” Garfield Public Health Director Yvonne Long said during her weekly update to county commissioners on Monday. “People are doing a good job of wearing masks … and that has us on track to keep our cases coming down, and keep it manageable.”
Whether a return to classrooms for some schools and the limited high school sports programs that are now being allowed might contribute to another spike in cases remains to be seen.
Public health officials do not make decisions for the schools, but provide data and advice, Long said.
One key indicator in the enhanced measurement system, community disease spread, remains in the high-risk category for the county, explained Mason Hohstadt, who tracks statistics and maintains the county’s COVID-19 webpage.
That’s where someone contracts the disease from an unknown source in the community, rather than through contact with persons known to have tested positive. During the most recent 14-day period, 58% of new cases were attributed to community spread, Hohstadt said.
Other measures, including the incident rate per 100,000 people, test positivity rate, COVID-19 test turn-around time, contact tracing and hospital system capacity, put Garfield County in the comfortable to cautious range, he said.
The new data tracker has prompted the county to calculate its rolling two-week totals of new cases a little differently, Hohstadt also explained.
Instead of assigning cases to a certain date based on a patient’s symptom onset, those cases are now assigned based on the date they tested positive.
“That gives us a fuller picture of how the disease looks right now,” Hohstadt said. “It also aligns our data with Pitkin and Eagle counties, and gives us more of a fixed point to work from in terms of the case reporting.”
The Roaring Fork District in particular has been asking for more consistent data from which to make its decisions about returning to the classroom, because its schools are located in all three counties.
Garfield County and the school district are also working to get an outbreak of case data for the small portion of Eagle County in the Basalt-El Jebel area that can be beneficial in making those decisions.
The three public health departments have been working to combine data for a regional coronameter, as well, that could be particularly helpful for schools and districts that draw students from multiple counties.
In addition, Hohstadt has provided a more detailed breakdown of COVID cases for the school age group, beyond what’s reported on the county’s website. Of the 834 reported in Garfield County since the outbreak began, 51 cases were in the 15-19 age group, 24 in ages 10-14, and 18 for ages 5-9, he said.
At least one of the more-recent new cases involved an 18-year-old in the Roaring Fork School District, Hohstadt said, adding he could not provide the specific town where that case was identified.
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