BENZONIA — The outbreak of COVID-19 continues at Benzie County Central Schools.
The district reported seven new cases Thursday, bringing the total to 11 cases in the district — 10 of those within the high school. Benzie Superintendent Amiee Erfourth confirmed six of the new cases were high school students and the other was a coach who is not a teacher.
Michelle Klein, director of personal health for the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department, said the transmission does not seem to be happening within school buildings. Klein and Erfourth said most of the cases have been traced back to a single gathering that was not related to any school-associated activity.
Klein said the exposure is a “very defined cluster,” which allowed health department officials to identify those affected and keep them quarantined.
“It’s what’s happening outside of school,” Klein said. “Kids are very social, so there are a lot contacts.”
Erfourth said it is encouraging to know the transmission has not happened within school walls and that the safety protocols put in place are working.
“We cannot control what students are doing outside of school hours,” Erfourth said. “But we can continue to encourage students to make smart and safe choices.”
Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District Assistant Superintendent Matt Olson is the former Benzie superintendent and a parent of two Benzie students, including one in the high school. Olson said there is concern but added he is impressed by the response to the outbreak.
“We knew that this was likely to happen at some point,” Olson said. “This is the nature of the pandemic. We’re just trying to take it a step at a time.”
Erfourth said the district still is on track to return to in-person learning Tuesday.
Benzie was not the only school district to report new cases.
Traverse City Area Public Schools, Elk Rapids Public Schools and Frankfort-Elberta Area Schools also announced positive cases.
The TCAPS positive school-associated case was confirmed at East Middle School. Grand Traverse County Health Department officials completed contact tracing and notified all individuals who need to stay home and quarantine.
The Elk Rapids case occurred at Cherryland Middle School. Superintendent Julie Brown sent a letter to families Thursday informing them that health department officials conducted contact tracing and determined there were no close contacts within the school community.
Frankfort Superintendent Jeff Tousley informed families of a positive case at the junior and senior high school campus. Tousley said individuals in close contact with the infected person will be notified by either health department officials or the school district. All schools buildings will remain open, Tousley said.
Only Alba, Bellaire, Buckley, Mancelona and Suttons Bay remain as school districts yet to report a confirmed positive case.
The news of rising case counts in both schools and the wider northern Michigan community came on the heels of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer downgrading the Traverse City region to phase 4, joining the rest of the state.
Health officials have identified reasons behind new case outbreaks in Kalkaska County: social gatherings and transmission in schools.
“We are busier now than we were in the beginning,” said Jeannine Taylor, spokesperson for District Health Department No. 10.
Last weekend, nearly 200 newly discovered cases were reported to the department across its 10 counties, she said, followed by more than another 40 on Monday. Each positive case must have all contacts traced, Taylor said. In the cases of a school, that tracing could include as many as 35 pupils in a classroom whose families must all be informed of the exposure.
Health officials across northern Lower Michigan on Thursday reported 238 additional cases of COVID-19 in the past 48 hours, but no additional deaths.
The most significant increases in cases happened in Grand Traverse County, where 54 cases were discovered since Tuesday. Close behind it in new infections was Emmet County, where 43 additional cases in the prior two days were reported by authorities Thursday.
That brings the 17-county region’s collective confirmed case total to 3,060 and 77 reported deaths since the pandemic began. Grand Traverse County has had the most confirmed cases in the area with a total of 764 since March, statistics show.
Additionally, public health workers across the region have identified more than 350 probable COVID-19 cases — those who are experiencing symptoms of the contagious disease who also are close contacts or household members with those who’ve already tested positive.
Michigan state health officials reported on Thursday the statewide total now stands at 171,220 confirmed cases and 7,298 reported deaths.
The Associated Press reported Whitmer, in light of the increase, tightened restrictions limiting gatherings such as weddings, parties and banquets to no more than 50 people — down from a maximum of 500.
Restaurants, bars and other venues must seat no more than six people at a table. All dine-in establishments must keep customers’ names and phone numbers for contact-tracing purposes, starting Monday.
State officials said indoor settings are as much as 20 times more likely to result in COVID-19 outbreaks than outdoor settings.
Klein said much of the rise in cases can be attributed to the change in weather, which has pushed social gatherings inside. She said it is best to always wear a mask inside and social distance, even at someone’s home.
“Although we are all so tired of this, because of the surging numbers we know if you go outside of your house, you are potentially at risk to being exposed to someone with COVID.”