Now that public schools in Carroll County are back to in-person learning, at least partially, how much information will the health department and the school system make available to the public about confirmed or potential COVID-19 cases among those who are using school facilities?
That’s what Board of County Commissioners President Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, asked of county Health Officer Ed Singer during Thursday morning’s weekly commissioners meeting, sparking a discussion about balancing individual privacy rights against the public’s right to know.
“It’s important for parents. People need to be informed,” Wantz said. “I’m not talking about names of individuals. Let’s be clear here. I’m talking about a commonsense approach. I’m talking about grades, possibly schools.”
Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, agreed, noting that he is already hearing rumors regarding schools. Monday was the first day of Carroll County Public Schools' hybrid learning plan, which has about half of students in school buildings Mondays and Tuesdays, with the other half going in Thursdays and Fridays.
“I think that’s better to get some real information out there than all the rumors that are flying around,” he said. “I don’t know how to do it, Ed, and I’m not telling you how to do your job … but we need to get some information out there, we really do. At least the truthful, factual information.”
Singer told the commissioners it isn’t that simple and they probably would not be getting as much information from him as they would like, as they need to be careful not to give out anything that might identify someone as having contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, or being in quarantine.
“We’ve been having a lot of discussions about this as a group of health officers with the legal counsel of Maryland Department of Health about what we can and we can’t disclose,” Singer said. “We’re looking to establish a threshold, whether that’s a certain number of cases or a certain percentage of the population in the school that we would be able to disclose cases that are related to a school, to be able to disclose those publicly.”
Singer posed a hypothetical case: A student at a Carroll County elementary school test positive, and two students in close contact with that student are told to quarantine. In that case, it would be too easy to identify exactly which student had tested positive, if his department were to announce a positive test at that school.
“Those people who test positive, who are diagnosed as COVID-positive, have a right to privacy,” Singer said. “Quite frankly, I’ve seen situations where people have been shunned because they’ve had COVID, and even though they’re medically cleared to go back into the community, we know they’re not infectious, people are treating them essentially like they have leprosy.”
Singer told the commissioners that anyone who would need to know would be notified. Those in close contact with someone suspected of or confirmed to have COVID-19 would be called in the course of contact tracing.
“I can disclose certain information if we can show that it actually helps prevent the spread of the disease, not just because people are curious about it,” he said.
Wantz brought up a conversation with one of his counterparts in Caroline County and how that jurisdiction is making information available. That county’s school system website put out news releases about new cases last week and had a story updating that to 10 cases and a school closure this week.
“I’d kind of like to know why Caroline County did it and everyone else seems to be jammed up with lawyers,” Wantz said.
Wantz and Frazier both spoke of the importance of the county getting out reliable information so that residents wouldn’t have to rely on social media.
“With schools going back into that hybrid/virtual methodology right now, it would be very important, I think, for our citizens to have some idea of how things are going instead of reading it on Facebook,” Wantz said. "I’ve about had it with all of that. It’s the dumpster of our society. I’d rather hear it on a chart from Ed Singer than [fictional] Betsy Smith on her Facebook page.”
Wantz suggested listing cases by school or grade.
Said Frazier: “I think it’s better to have the facts out there than all the rumors flying.”
Singer said there would be regular updates to keep the commissioners and the public informed, but the health department and school system would do what they need to do to keep personal information private.
“I do want to put out generally the total numbers of cases that we see that are related to schools so that we can track that as a trend because I think that’s important for you all as decision-makers to be able to know if schools being opened are driving any trends or changes in cases that we are seeing in the community, but I keep going back to, if somebody’s potentially been impacted by this ... they’re going to be notified,” he said. “While we do not want to give impression that we’re not being transparent with anything, it is important to also protect the privacy of people who may have been diagnosed with COVID.
“It’s going to be a tough balancing act and we’re going to be sharing some statistical data. I don’t know that it’s going to go as far as you would like it to go. But, ultimately, I’ve got to take the best advice that we’re getting from the department of health and everybody that’s involved with this on what data we can share.”
The Carroll County Health Department confirmed five new cases Thursday, all from the wider community outside of congregate living facilities such as nursing homes, but there was a net gain of only four total cases because one of last week’s cases was discovered to be from outside of Carroll, a spokesperson said.
The total number of community cases so far this week is 31, tracking lower than last week, when 42 cases had been confirmed through Thursday. Last week finished with 59 total cases, after 70 the previous week.
The health department reported six more probable cases of COVID-19, bringing that number to 101. These “probable” cases stem from Carroll countians who tested positive using a rapid antigen test, rather than a molecular test like those offered at state-run testing sites. The department doesn’t consider these results to be confirmed cases.
To date, 1,378 Carroll countians have been released from isolation, an increase of 12 since Wednesday. The number of community members who have been hospitalized for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic rose by one to 130.
McDaniel College has seen 17 members of its campus community test positive for COVID-19 out of a total of 2,461 tests conducted since Aug. 14.
Carroll’s positivity rate, reported as a seven-day rolling average, was essentially unchanged at 1.75%, as of Wednesday. The statewide rate that Maryland reports dipped slightly to 3.1%.
Of the 1,478 community members to test positive in Carroll, 28 are younger than 10 years old; 188 are in the 10-19 range; 314 are 20-29 years old; 183 are 30-39; 218 are 40-49; 290 are 50-59; 161 are 60-69; 58 are 70-79; 36 are 80-89; and two are in their 90s. Women have accounted for 764 of the positive tests, and men 714.
According to health department data, Carroll has now seen 2,164 total cases. Westminster has seen the most with 738 across two ZIP codes, followed by Sykesville/Eldersburg with 553, Mount Airy with 268, Manchester with 145, Finksburg with 105, Hampstead with 103, Taneytown with 80, New Windsor with 45, Marriottsville with 36, Woodbine with 31, Keymar with 30, and Union Bridge with 20. Data is not released in ZIP codes with seven cases or fewer.
Anyone who thinks they or a family member might be showing coronavirus symptoms can call the hotline between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at 410-876-4848, or contact their doctor. After hours, callers may leave a message or call 211. People with emergencies should continue to call 911.