As coronavirus fears spread, schools struggle to quell rumors about illness

As public concern about the novel coronavirus ramps up, Salem-Keizer officials said schools are being overwhelmed with rumors and speculation about who may have the disease.

“Everyone believes they have it,” said district spokeswoman Lillian Govus. She’s heard of more than 20 cases of parents calling schools saying their child has COVID-19 despite no testing taking place. Many more instances are likely being handled by individual schools without district headquarters learning about them, she said.

There is confusion about symptoms of the disease, a challenge as allergy season begins and many kids are sick with influenza, stomach bugs or regular colds.

“What’s going around heavily is the flu and also allergies,” Govus said.

COVID-19 symptoms are a fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. Sneezing, vomiting, diarrhea and a runny nose are not on the list federal, state or local health authorities have advised the public to watch for as symptoms of the novel coronavirus infection.

On Wednesday, a Salem-area parent posted in a Facebook group for local moms with 1,700 members saying her student’s classmate at South Salem High School had tested positive for the virus.

The rumor wasn’t true – the student was home sick with an unrelated illness, Govus said, and the school contacted the mother to let her know. The post was deleted soon after, though not before drawing dozens of comments, many from concerned parents.

But the case illustrates the test school officials face in urging parents to take precautions and keep sick kids home while not feeding panic or unfounded fears.

“Rumors at South have been circulating. It started last week before there was any diagnosed case” locally, Govus said.

Oregon Health Authority officials are sharing little information about presumptive cases of the illness across the state, other than the county where the person is located. County health workers are following that direction across Oregon, including in two cases in Marion County and one in Polk County.

The tight lid on information has some concerned that known cases in schools aren’t being shared disclosed to the public.

That’s not the case, Govus said. State officials have reached out to local schools in cases where a patient was a student or school employee. If Salem-Keizer received that information, she said they would publicize the name of the school and any steps taken in response, like extra cleaning or school closure.

Compounding the concern is the fact that testing in Oregon remains limited to people with severe symptoms of the illness who are hospitalized, or those with symptoms who have been in close contact with another known case. Statewide, just over 300 people have been tested, with another 62 results pending as of Wednesday.

Data from early COVID-19 infections in China and elsewhere suggests kids rarely get sick, and when they do, illnesses are typically mild.

Concerns haven’t significantly impacted school attendance yet. Between 88% and 90% of local students have come to school daily for the past week, Govus said. Those numbers are about the same as on the same days last year.

The exception was Monday, the first day after Marion County’s first presumptive case of the virus was announced. Only 86% of local students showed up at school.

The Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education are advising against closing local schools preemptively to prevent the spread of illness.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander at [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.