In surge, school-age kids account for half of Vashon cases

MRC doctors now believe that school-age cases are now driving Vashon’s exploding case rate.

Vashon continues to be crushed by record cases of COVID-19, with Public Health Seattle King County (PHSKC) reporting 190 Vashon cases in the past two weeks — a number making up 40% of all cases recorded since the start of the pandemic 22 months ago.

Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps tested 75% of these cases and based on its contact tracing, the group of doctors now believes that school-age cases are now driving Vashon’s exploding case rate.

“School-age kids make up less than 20% of Vashon’s population but account for more than half of Vashon cases,” said Dr. Jim Bristow, co-coordinator of the MRC. “Counting just the kids that MRC identified during weekday testing last week, the case rate in schools is now more than 30 times the CDC defined threshold for high transmission. Given that the district has identified additional cases and still others may have been tested off-island, this is surely an underestimation.”

Current cases at VISD

On Wednesday, Jan. 5, McSheehy released a then-current count of cases involving students and staff.

The cases, logged from Dec. 27 to Jan. 5, include eight staff members, with one case each among staff at Chautauqua Elementary School (CES), McMurray Middle School (McM), Vashon High School (VHS) and the LINK program. District staff working in non-building specific locations accounted for the other 4 cases.

Among students, there were a total of 50 cases — 30 of those affecting VHS students, 10 affecting McMurray students, eight affecting CES students, and two affecting LINK students.

The district’s public COVID-19 dashboard, at, was updated last week for the first time since Dec. 13 to show total cases in December, though January numbers are not yet showing. The dashboard shows that from September through December 2021, there were a total of 54 cases in students, five cases in staff, 359 students deemed to be close contacts of infected persons, and 65 staff members deemed to be close contacts.

Asked by The Beachcomber on Monday, Jan. 10 for an updated number of cases, McSheehy said his staff had not reconciled new cases since his report on Jan. 5. He also said that the district had not been properly resourced to keep the dashboard current on a more regular basis.

However, he said the district was now seeing fewer positive cases, pointing to testing that had taken place that morning for 60 staff and students. Approximately 40 of those tested were close contacts from exposures in school last week, and another 20 had had positive cases. All tested negative, he said.

At the same testing event, the MRC tested an additional 23 students, said Bristow, in most cases using PCR tests that will not yield results until this Wednesday (after press time).

School resumed with mass testing

Students and staff of the Vashon Island School District (VISD) returned to classrooms on Tuesday, Jan. 4, starting two and a half hours later than usual to accommodate a mass testing clinic held that morning in the Vashon High School gym.

That clinic, held in collaboration with the MRC, was described by the district as “a precautionary step” given record numbers of COVID-19 transmission on the island.

Testing was not required for all students and staff, but rather, advised for all those who had spent time in large gatherings outside their family in the 10 days prior to starting school, as well as all those who were experiencing any symptoms and/or were unvaccinated.

In all, 316 people including staff members and students showed up to be tested — a number representing about 20% of all school district students and staff members.

The district has about 1448 full-time students and about 160 staff members.

Test results at the Jan. 4 event, said Superintendent Slade McSheehy, showed 11 infections among students, and three infections in staff members — a 4.43% positivity rate.

Subsequent testing, on Wednesday, Jan. 5, of an additional 41 district staff members and students discovered two more positive cases in students but none among staff — a 4.87% positivity rate.

These rates, McSheehy said, were compared to the 4% rate of positive cases found in testing for 14,000 Seattle School District staff and students on Sunday and Monday, Jan. 3 and 4.

Bristow, in an email, explained the difference in positivity rates found between the VISD mass testing event and recent MRC testing of youth.

“If you test anyone who wants a test, your positive rate will be way lower than with a targeted strategy focused on symptomatic individuals and those with known exposures,” he wrote. “The VISD mass testing was really important, not just because we found a number of COVID-positive people, but also because it gives us an idea of how much COVID is in the schools. VISD’s positive rate of 4% is twice what it has been previously — and since they tested about 20% of the school population, it is likely there are other cases in the schools that they don’t yet know about.”

Bristow also pointed out that the MRC tested 15 positive students on Monday, Jan. 3, who didn’t attend school on Tuesday because the MRC had asked them to quarantine.

In a phone interview last week, McSheehy said he was encouraged by the testing event, saying district staff members and the Medical Reserve Corps had worked well together to handle the increased volume of testing on Wednesday.

“Our teachers and our staff keep rolling up their sleeves,” McSheehy said, praising them for their hard work and dedication in partnering with the MRC. “I think we have a good system in place.”

McSheehy said he is not considering a return to remote learning at this time.

“We know what remote learning did to kids,” he said. “Their lives were completely degraded.”

VISD implements new guidelines with shorter times for isolation, quarantine

Last week, a community email from McSheehy announced that revised COVID safety guidelines for VISD staff and students will largely follow updated guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control, Washington Department of Health (DOH) and PHSKC.

The new guidelines include either a reduction or elimination of quarantine time for those exposed to COVID-19, according to the vaccination status of the exposed individuals.

The CDC, DOH and PHSKC have also shortened the recommended time for isolation from 10 days for people who have COVID-19 to five days, if their fever is gone and symptoms are improving on day five, followed by five days of wearing a mask when around others. If symptoms occur, individuals are recommended to quarantine until a negative test confirms symptoms are not related to COVID-19.

On Monday, McSheehy said that 20 of those who tested negative at the school that day had been positive but were testing in order to return to school after five days of isolation.

VISD guidelines contrast with those made by Medical Reserve Corps

The MRC’s recommendations for quarantine and isolation for those exposed or infected with COVID-19 are more strict than the new CDC, DOH, PHSKC and VISD guidelines.

“We are frankly aghast, as are many public health professionals, by the reduction in isolation time when case rates are exploding nationally and locally,” Bristow said. “CDC has not made public the science they believe supports this change so it can’t be independently evaluated. We do know that at least some fraction of COVID cases, perhaps as many as 20-30%, will still be infectious after 5 days. Ending isolation early will very likely send still infectious people back to work and school.”

MRC continues to recommend that those with COVID-19 isolate at home for 10 days from the onset symptoms (or positive test if no symptoms). The MRC also recommends that exposed individuals, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, quarantine at home for 10 days from their last exposure if feasible, and obtain a PCR test on day 7 to ensure that they remain negative before returning to public life.

“The MRC continues to make these conservative recommendations because of the age of the Vashon community and the health risks that come with it, as well as the fact that the island has no direct access to acute care,” Bristow said. “These factors pose an extra risk on Vashon compared with the remainder of King County.”

Test shortage at VISD

On Monday, McSheehy announced the temporary suspension of the district’s rapid testing program, due to a shortage of tests. However, later in the day, McSheehy told The Beachcomber that he had learned VISD’s tests had been shipped via FedEx overnight, so he was optimistic that the district would have the testing site up and running soon.

Another sports outbreak at VHS

The return to school and testing at the district also came in the wake of another outbreak of COVID-19 in a VHS sports team, this time with seven members as well as the coach of the boy’s varsity basketball team testing positive for the virus, following a game played in Leavenworth by the team on Dec. 29. The first tests among the group came back positive on Dec. 31, McSheehy said, who added that all of the cases among the team and staff were mild or asymptomatic.

In mid-December, an outbreak on Vashon High School’s wrestling team resulted in positive cases for eight team members and two of those team members’ close contacts.

In addition, the MRC has traced three community cases to exposure from infected students, including some family household members, and said that it was “highly likely” that half of the high school cases were Omicron.

More than half of the student body of VHS was deemed to have had close contact with the infected students.

Following similar outbreaks in wrestlers statewide, DOH now requires that all those who participate in high-risk sports (which include water polo, cheer, basketball and wresting) must be tested at least three times per week, with one of those tests ideally occurring on the same day as any competition. Previously, only unvaccinated participants were required to test.

According to McSheehy, sports practices are continuing at VISD.