UNMC/OPS joint study reveals higher than expected COVID-19 infections in staff & students in schools

Posted at 10:41 AM, Apr 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-20 19:07:21-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — A recent study conducted within the Omaha Public School (OPS) district by Nebraska Medicine/UNMC scientists revealed COVID-19 infection rates were two-and-a-half times higher for staff and nearly six times higher for students than what was routinely observed.

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The study also found almost 10 times the cases per population than what was originally observed through community testing in the surrounding county.

The OPS PROTECTS program detected COVID-19 infections within the district that wouldn’t have been detected otherwise.

Nebraska Medicine said the study is believed to be the first description of COVID-19 testing in K-12 schools that combines individual screening and building-level environmental monitoring.

“This data shows the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 infection in school-aged children is being dramatically underestimated,” said Jana Broadhurst, MD, Ph.D., corresponding author on the study. “We were able to identify and remove staff and students from the school environment who wouldn’t have otherwise been identified. This kind of rigorous infection control and environmental monitoring not only helps lessen risk during school operations, it also might provide insight into how much a disease is spreading in a community where access to testing is limited.”

OPS PROTECTS was conducted in six schools in north and south Omaha through November and March of 2020 involving an area that is mostly of minority race and ethnicity and experiences poverty, according to Nebraska Medicine.

Students and staff without symptoms were screened weekly through a PCR saliva test. Environmental air, surface and wastewater testing were also conducted. It was found that choir rooms contained the highest amount of virus and not more social places like lunchrooms, where essentially no virus was found.

Approximately 100% of the teachers and staff within the schools took part while 12% of students participated.

OPS was using a hybrid model to lessen classroom density during the pilot period, with about one-fourth as many students in attendance each day compared to a typical school year.

“It’s extremely gratifying to take part in a project which reinforced the importance of some of the measures we put in place across the school district,” said Cheryl Logan, Omaha Public Schools superintendent. “This study shows how things like wearing masks, reducing student density and improving air exchange systems can decrease COVID-19 transmission in schools.”

Sampling consistently found the presence of COVID-19 in the wastewater streams of the schools. Additionally, positive air and surface samples were discovered but only in two rooms total, Nebraska Medicine said.

When asked if Governor Ricketts had any comments on these findings, his spokesman, Taylor Gage wrote in an email, "This study doesn’t have any direct impact on hospitalization levels, which has been Nebraska’s metric for managing the pandemic."

The team at Nebraska Medicine says that the project might provide a model for infectious disease screening in educational institutions.

“We believe this project represents a feasible, scalable and novel approach to screening and monitoring in a school setting,” said Dr. Broadhurst. “Our results show as many as nine in 10 student COVID-19 cases and seven in 10 staff cases might be missed by conventional reporting. Doing this kind of testing can help lessen transmission in schools because of the ability to better isolate, trace and manage school activities.”

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