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Palm Beach County's health director doesn't expect 'a lot' of coronavirus cases in elementary, middle schools

Dr. Alina Alonso says high school, university students are at higher risk of COVID-19
Posted at 9:17 AM, Sep 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-22 17:20:06-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Now that brick-and-mortar schools are back open in Palm Beach County, just how many cases of COVID-19 will we see among students?

That depends on the age group, says Dr. Alina Alonso, the county's health director.

Speaking to Palm Beach County commissioners on Tuesday, Alonso said she doesn't expect to see "a lot of positivity" among elementary or middle school students.

However, high schoolers may be a different story.

"Into the high school we start getting with the seniors as they venture out to do the things that we tell them not to do that they will do," Alonso said. "And, of course, the universities. That's where we're seeing our large number of positivity."


Dr. Alina Alonso talks coronavirus in schools

Alonso said most of the COVID-19 cases among local college students at Florida Atlantic University and Palm Beach State College are not occurring on campus, but rather when students go out at night to West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, and Delray Beach, something Alonso admitted she's "very concerned" about.

"The schools are trying as best they can to try to keep the campuses safe," Alonso said. "But what we get from our contact tracing is, I see the clubs that they're going to, or the house parties, or what's very popular now is the gathering at parking lots at night, late at night, and then having tailgate parties."

Calling it an "area of concern," Alonso said that 48% of new COVID-19 cases in Palm Beach County on Sept. 20 were in the 15 to 44 age bracket.

"This is the group that we have to keep a close eye on," Alonso said. "At that age, you feel invincible and you may not go to the doctor. You may just try to fight it off, and some of them may get in trouble."

When it comes to the younger age group among students, however, Alonso said that private schools in Palm Beach County are not seeing a lot of "secondary cases" of COVID-19, meaning that infected students don't seem to be spreading the virus to other students.

"We go in very quickly, send the kids home for quarantine, get tested. So we should see the same thing happening through the public schools," Alonso said.

When there is a suspected case of COVID-19 in schools, Alonso said the sick child or staff member will be taken to a school nurse who will examine them and consult with "expert pediatricians" to determine the next course of action.

"There is an assigned desk chart for each classroom and for the bus so that when we do contact tracing, we know exactly where the kids are. That is very, very important," Alonso said.

On Monday, the School District of Palm Beach County launched an online dashboard that tracks all confirmed cases of COVID-19 among students and staff members in local schools.

According to the dashboard, there are currently 19 cases of COVID-19 in the district, all of them employees.

In a one-on-one interview with WPTV's Stephanie Susskind on Monday, Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy he "absolutely" expects to see COVID-19 cases in local schools.

"Schools are nothing more than a microcosm of American society. So if it's happening in the real world, it's going to happen in the school," Fennoy said.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Back To School | Coronavirus

According to the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Health, there are 45,602 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,286 coronavirus-related deaths in Palm Beach County.

The county's daily lab positivity rate for COVID-19 was 3.17% on Sept. 20. Health officials aim to keep that number below 5%, because that allows for better contact tracing.