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Epidemiologist says don't 'panic' after 2 cases of COVID-19 detected in Manatee schools

A USF infectious disease expert says the cases in Manatee County likely had the virus before the year started and the spread of coronavirus in schools is expected.

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — Three days into classes in Manatee County and two people in the district have already tested for COVID-19, leaving some parents concerned. But infectious disease experts say it’s expected.

"Unfortunately anytime you have any gathering of people, it's a problem. We talk about it over and over again," said Dr. Jill Roberts with USF Public Health. 

Roberts says it's likely the two individuals in Manatee had the virus before the year started. The positive cases of COVID-19 were detected by the Manatee County Department of Health at Ballard Elementary and Parrish Community High School. 

The school district can't confirm if the two individuals who tested positive are students or teachers, but do say both were sent home.

“You're going to have to go and trace every place that those students have been, to who they've been in contact with. How long was there a mask on? Was there a mask off,” Roberts said.

Roberts says any direct contacts with either case will have to isolate for 14 days.

“Say you had a student who tested positive walking in the hallway with a mask on and they cross the path with other students. That's not at risk, but if you have the same student sitting in a classroom, taking the mask off in a closed area, even taking the mask off long enough to eat lunch, and especially if that mask is off for up to say 15 minutes, now you're at risk,” Roberts said.

In this case, the Manatee County School District says there was minimal contact with the positive case at Parrish Community High School. At Ballard Elementary, multiple people were directly exposed. 

Several people from both schools have to isolate, but the district wouldn't disclose how many citing HIPAA concerns.

“We try not to share medical information in any way, shape, or form with anyone who isn't at risk. What I do think will happen is that parents will demand transparency. They will want to know, X numbers of cases occurred at this school, and there's probably no issues with actually sharing that piece of information. I think it's important to give parents more of a sense of control,” Roberts said.

Roberts says the spread of the virus in schools is inevitable, but there’s no reason to worry just yet

“I am worried that schools become epicenters. This is a lose, lose situation. There are disadvantages of not going back to school and then there are disadvantages of staying at home. Unfortunately, parents are still going to have to make the choice that is right for their family and what they can do. But again, this is not the time to panic,” Roberts said.

By Monday, five more districts in Tampa Bay will welcome students back into the classroom, starting with Citrus County on Thursday.

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