Kansas middle school student dies of COVID; state reports 11 new school clusters

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
A hospital bed sits in the hallway on the seventh floor of Stormont Vail Health on Nov. 21, 2020.

A Kansas middle school student has died of COVID-19, a state education official said Wednesday as public health reporting showed more schools have coronavirus clusters than a week ago.

"On an extremely sad note, I was just informed ... that we did have a student, a middle school student, pass away of COVID just in the last maybe day," Education Commissioner Randy Watson told Gov. Laura Kelly's Safer Classrooms Workgroup.

"Those are the types of things we're working hard to make sure does not happen while we keep schools open — it's keeping them open and safe."

Details on the child's death weren't released, including what school the student attended and whether the student was infected at school.

The death has not yet been reported in Kansas Department of Health and Environment statistics. The middle school student would be the third child COVID-19 death reported in Kansas and likely the first in the 10-17 age group.

"KDHE and local public health officials are investigating the report of a recent death in a minor resulting from COVID-19 disease," agency spokesperson Matt Lara said in a statement. "KDHE has reached out to the facilities that cared for the minor with a request for medical records.

"No other information will be released at this time to protect the identity of the decedent and the family."

Meanwhile, the KDHE reported 11 new clusters at schools. There are now 72 active school outbreaks across the state with an associated 537 cases and one hospitalization.

The state reported six new sports outbreaks. There are now 11 additional active sports clusters with 59 related cases.

More:COVID-19 spreads 'like wildfire,' infecting children at higher rates; 63 active outbreaks in Kansas schools

State public health officials identified five school locations with active outbreaks and three sporting activities.

Those locations were Jefferson Elementary in Great Bend, Piper Prairie Elementary School in Kansas City, Rock Hills Jr/Sr High in Mankato has eight cases, South Haven Jr. High School, St. John Jr/Sr High School, DeSoto High School athletics, McPherson High School football and Osawatomie Middle School's seventh-grade volleyball team.

The KDHE presentation to the governor's workgroup noted the "drastic increase in outbreaks this week [is] likely due in part to improved reporting."

Vaccinations, testing and masking are the three major tools to keep schools open safely, said Marci Nielsen, one of the governor's pandemic advisers.

Pediatric hospitalizations connected to school

Nielsen noted increases in cases and deaths in recent months, as well as a slump in vaccinations since Labor Day. Additionally, youth vaccination rates in the state continue to lag about seven percentage points below the national average.

"Kansas is still very much at risk," Nielsen said, pointing to 103 of 105 counties being classified by the CDC as areas with "substantial" or "high" community transmission. "What happens in one county is connected to the activities in other counties and absolutely connected back to schools."

In the past seven days, the KDHE reported 8,235 new COVID-19 cases and 221 new hospitalizations. Children accounted for 2,368 of the cases and 12 of the hospitalizations.

School-aged children continue to have the highest positive test rates in Kansas, according to federal data from the White House pandemic task force.

"There's obviously a connection between school opening and cases among kids and subsequent hospitalizations," Nielsen said.

Pediatric hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the state, including hospitals on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metro, are almost three times as high as the same point a year ago. The Kansas Hospital Association reported 29 pediatric hospitalized patients with confirmed COVID-19 as of Sept. 20, compared to 10 such patients on the same day last year.

Stephanie Kuhlmann, a pediatrician at Wesley Healthcare in Wichita, said the hospital has seen an "exponential" increase in COVID-19 pediatric hospitalizations.

"After school started, we've had more in August and September than we had the entire pandemic," she said.

The doctor has also noted disease spread from school-aged children to other family members.

Masks make a difference in schools

Local leaders need accurate data on masking to develop good policy, Watson said. However, more than half of Kansas districts haven't told state officials what their mask policies are.

About 16% of the state's school districts have masks required for most or all students, while 33% either have no mask policy or are encouraging but not requiring their use.

"It's important data to have, particularly when you contrast that with where we're seeing outbreaks," Nielsen said. "... In those school districts where masks are required, it appears that there are fewer active outbreaks."

Local politics can make those decisions more controversial.

"Communities continue to be splintered at board meetings ... that adds tremendous pressure on school people and school board members," Watson said. "... They really do want to do the right thing, but some loud voices are wanting no mask policies, and in some cases no testing."

More:Mask mandate divides Holton: Parents transfer children, taunt school board member before BOE changes course

Wichita Public Schools have experienced a decrease in cases after masks were mandated at the end of August, said Kimber Kasitz, the top nurse for USD 259.

"For those that are wondering if it's making a difference, it certainly is making a difference," she said. "... The masks did more than just stop the spread of cases so rampantly, it also minimized the contact tracing effort."

Testing helps keep kids in school

Nielsen said Kansas is among national leaders in testing at school.

"Kansas is one of one of a group of states that's really leading the country in testing out a model that keeps kids safe in schools," she said.

While a growing number of districts are taking advantage of KDHE grants funding for testing programs, many schools remain uninterested. Leaders of 11% of Kansas school districts said they weren't interested in testing and 12% of districts did not respond to state inquiries.

More:Less than half of Kansas school districts are participating in COVID testing strategies from KDHE

Watson said the state's testing program has been a "home run" for those that have used it.

"We have been able to keep school going primarily because of the testing program," he said.

Only 100 school districts are reporting testing numbers, according to the KDHE presentation. The remainder are either not testing or are failing to report the tests to the state.

About 14,200 tests were performed at those 100 schools in the last week of reporting, resulting in about 800 cases in 74 districts.

"We are certain that that there will be more to come given how infectious delta is," Nielsen said.