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Nevada school districts poles apart in response to coronavirus tests

The first two positive tests for coronavirus in Nevada had two starkly different outcomes at the schools attended by the patients’ relatives: In Washoe County, an elementary school was identified and closed for a day for additional testing and cleaning, while families in Southern Nevada had no clear idea whether their children’s schools might pose an additional risk of infection.

At a Southern Nevada Health District news briefing Thursday morning, Fermin Leguen, the health district’s acting chief health officer, said that a military veteran in his 50s had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Leguen, who noted the district was awaiting confirmation of the positive test by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the man had a child in school, but declined to identify the school district the child attended or say whether it was a public or private school. He said the health district had been “working very closely with the school district on this, sharing information, and they already are aware of that.”

Asked after the briefing if the student attended one of their schools, the Clark County School District and State Public Charter School Authority both declined to answer, issuing near identical statements saying, “Any individuals who may have been in contact with the identified presumptive case are under monitoring by health authorities.”

Late Friday, a letter from Explore Knowledge Academy began to circulate on social media explaining to parents that a member of the school community was under quarantine by the health district due to potential exposure to COVID-19; however, it was not clear whether this case was related to the military veteran case.

In contrast, when announcing Nevada’s second positive test for COVID-19 later the same day, Washoe County Health District officials said the patient, also a man in his 50s, had a family member who attended Huffaker Elementary School and said it had asked the Washoe County School District to close it on Friday for additional testing and cleaning.

It also said both the patient and some of his family members had been passengers aboard a now-quarantined cruise ship in San Francisco connected to at least 28 cases of the illness, including one death.

The school district had earlier notified parents that Huffaker would be closed on Friday — but without mentioning the coronavirus or COVID-19.

“Under the direction of — and out of an abundance of caution — the Washoe County Health District has informed us that as a result of an increased number of students at Huffaker Elementary School with influenza-type symptoms, the school will be closed tomorrow, Friday, March 6,” the message said. “We are working with the health district to gather more information and guidance and will communicate with our Huffaker families and staff as soon as we have more information.”

It sent an update to parents Friday morning that connected the closure to the COVID-19 patient, saying the man “also has family members at Huffaker Elementary School.” It was unclear whether the man had more than one family member at the school as later information from officials referred to only one family member.

Officials at the agencies involved were guarded when asked to comment on the different responses to similar incidents.

Jennifer Sizemore, a spokeswoman for the Clark County Health District, said it was not the agency’s place to identify the school attended by the patient’s child or criticize the school district’s decision.

“We would not comment on what is happening in another jurisdiction or its public health response,” she said.

CCSD and the charter school board did not return requests for comment or say whether they declined to name the schools due to federal privacy laws.

Washoe County School District officials did not provide more information about the timing of the district’s messages to parents, nor whether the name of the school would have been disclosed regardless of media coverage.

The Washoe County Health District declined to comment.

News of positive tests leaked

Both news briefings came after news of the positive tests were leaked to news organizations.

In the Clark County case, the Nevada Independent reported early Thursday that a patient had tested positive for the coronavirus. But at its briefing, the health district did not volunteer that the man’s child attended a school in Southern Nevada. That fact only came to light through a Review-Journal reporter’s question.

In the Washoe County case, reporting by the Reno Gazette-Journal appears to have played a role in the health district’s response.

At a news briefing Friday, Kevin Dick, the district health officer, bristled when asked by a reporter why it took the district until 10 p.m. to release official information, given that the newspaper had received word of the positive test late that afternoon.

Dick said the district initially did not know there was a coronavirus connection at the school and complained that “confidential information” had been leaked to the media before the district could put out “accurate and credible information” through a press release.

“So I would ask the press, if you have leaked information available at 4 or 5 p.m., if you could provide us with any information that you have about (it) that I would certainly like to know about it, because we were not provided information on the lab results until 6 p.m.,” Dick said. “So that would be important to understand how confidential information is appearing for the media inappropriately.”

The district did not comment on whether the newspaper’s reporting played a role in its decision to identify the school.

Gazette-Journal Editor Brian Duggan declined to comment for this story.

Absent information, rumors circulate

In the absence of official information in Southern Nevada, several unconfirmed rumors cropped up, including competing suggestions that the child in question attends a CCSD school or a charter school. Other rumors named a CCSD elementary school and several schools in Henderson as the one the student attends.

“When will government agencies learn that providing public information is the surest way to stop rumors and conspiracy theories?” Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said Friday. “Administrators and teachers at individual schools in Southern Nevada were left to deal with important questions from parents that went unanswered. Foremost among them: Why was the school in question in Clark County kept secret when the affected school in Washoe County was identified and closed?”

Despite concern from parents on social media, CCSD did not experience a drop in attendance Friday, with a rate nearly identical to attendance on Feb. 28.

Richard Karpel of the Nevada Press Association said it was imperative for government agencies to release information immediately and in full, particularly given the risk COVID-19 poses to elderly and immuno-compromised patients.

“It seems like the first response of a lot of government agencies is to clam up,” he said. “But now is not the time to do that. Lives are at stake.”

He added that he would advise families to put pressure on their own schools to make sure as much information as possible is released as quickly as possible. Two federal privacy laws — HIPAA and FERPA — wouldn’t prevent a disclosure about the name of the school potentially experiencing a coronavirus outbreak, Karpel said, adding that authorities are notorious for applying an overly broad interpretation of the law to block the release of information that should be public.

“When the government doesn’t provide information, that’s when people panic,” Karpel said.

Contact Aleksandra Appleton at 702-383-0218 or aappleton@reviewjournal.com. Follow @aleksappleton on Twitter.

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