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How cases among parents could indicate COVID-19 clusters in RI schools

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With children less likely to show coronavirus symptoms than adults, signs of the disease among parents — rather than students — could help health officials identify an emerging cluster of cases in schools.  

Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how COVID-19 affects and spreads among children, but limited data collected during the pandemic suggests children who contract the disease “generally have less serious illness than adults,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For Rhode Island health officials, this has made it difficult to identify the disease in children because they’re less likely than adults to show symptoms, which can alert someone to get a COVID-19 test. And the dynamic poses a unique challenge as thousands of students return to in-person learning on Monday.

“We know that children with COVID-19 tend to have a milder course of illness. This is good news,” R.I. Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said. “But the fact that children with COVID-19 have a milder course of illness, and are asymptomatic more often, means that we are going to have to continue to be very thorough in the case investigations that we do.”

The state is setting up a K-12 testing system, which includes the daily capacity to run 4,000 diagnostic tests with two-day results, along with 1,200 rapid tests with same-day results. But students and school staff will only be tested if they’re showing symptoms or feeling sick, which may prove ineffective if children are asymptomatic.

To augment the strategy, health officials said they may start testing children whose parents or other adult household members have tested positive for COVID-19 outside of school. The approach is slightly different from before, when health officials would decide on a case-by-case basis whether to test friends and families of people with the disease, especially if they weren’t showing symptoms.

“One of the ways that we may identify asymptomatic COVID-19 positive children is through follow-up testing after identifying a COVID-19 positive adult in that child’s life, such as a parent,” Wendelken explained.

Health officials are hoping the approach could work effectively if multiple parents – or other family members – of students enrolled in the same school contract the disease simultaneously, even though their children aren’t showing symptoms or feeling sick.

The Health Department and the R.I. Department of Education are also taking a strict stance when it comes to allowing students back into schools after they’ve been exposed to someone with the disease, especially if the sick person lives within the same household. The rules could result in some students missing weeks of in-person learning.

“If the close contact lives in the same household, the 14 days of quarantine starts when the confirmed case ends isolation,” wrote state officials in Rhode Island’s so-called “K-12 Playbook,” which offers educators guidance on how to respond to outbreaks in schools. “A household close contact who has ongoing exposure to the confirmed case is usually quarantined for at least 24 days.”

Limiting household spread of COVID-19 has already proven most challenging in more densely populated communities, such as Central Falls and parts of Providence, where the disease has hit hardest. The two cities have an abundance of multi-family homes, where several people live in close quarters, making it more challenging to quarantine and isolate when sick.

Due to higher rates of disease found within those communities, Central Falls and Providence are the only two Rhode Island municipalities not allowed to reopen to full in-person learning next week, as health officials say it’s paramount to keep COVID-19 found in the community out of schools, and vice versa.  

“Identifying illness among adults in the community quickly, and quarantining their close contacts, including children, is going to be a very important part of our work to keep as much COVID-19 out of the schools as possible,” Wendelken said.

Eli Sherman ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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