Surveillance testing of students at Steamboat Mountain School yields 3 positive COVID-19 results

During surveillance antigen testing for COVID-19 at Steamboat Mountain School, three students had positive results.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Three students at Steamboat Mountain School tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday during surveillance antigen testing of all 71 students, according to Head of School Meg Morse.

All three students are asymptomatic and are boarding students from outside Routt County. However, they all tested negative in PCR tests before traveling to Steamboat Springs as was required by the school’s COVID-19 protocols for boarding students and for day students who had travelled outside the county within the past 14 days. All staff members were tested before starting school as well, Morse said.

In a letter sent home to parents, Morse emphasized that while the hope was that surveillance testing of all students would yield no positive results, “We knew that it was a possibility and planned accordingly.”

That contingency plan — in partnership with the Routt County Department of Public Health — went into effect immediately.

“Hope is not a strategy,” Morse added.

“We knew that we would see positive cases when kids came back to school and are happy that Steamboat Mountain School was quick to put their plan in action upon learning of the positive cases,” Routt County Director of Public Health Roberta Smith said in a news release.

Part of that plan included contact tracing of students and staff. Steamboat Mountain School students will be attending in-person classes in cohorts of eight to 12 students; however, until the surveillance testing was completed, the 30 boarding students were isolated from the day students, Morse said.

“Through that contact tracing process, we have determined that the affected cohorts encompass our boarding population as a whole, so we are following our quarantining plan for our boarding population,” Morse wrote in the letter to parents.

In addition, the boarding facilities occupied by the students who tested positive were immediately closed down and sanitized.

None of the day students tested positive for COVID-19, and they will begin in-person learning Wednesday, Morse said.

The antigen testing at Steamboat Mountain School was administered by Steamboat Family Medicine. Antigen testing, explained Dr. Rosanne Iversen, is like a strep test or a flu test. The antigen is the protein produced by the virus, she said, which antibodies bind to. The results are available within minutes.

“If it is a positive, it is a positive,” Iversen said.

The tests aren’t cheap but are very accurate, with a 100% specificity rate, meaning there are no false positives. They have a sensitivity rate of 96.7%. A negative result could mean the virus is there, she said, “but the person is not contagious.”

Iversen said she — and many in the medical community — would love to see a less expensive point-of-care option for COVID-19 testing.

“In using testing to control a pandemic, even results 48 hours down the road can be too late,” Iverson said. “You need results within minutes.”

There are some cheaper point-of-care options on the market, Iversen said, but they aren’t as sensitive. In an ideal world, “You could swab every kid’s nose every day for a dollar.”

Two of the three students who tested positive for COVID-19 live within an hours drive and will spend the isolation period at home, according to Morse’s letter to parents. The third “will remain in the space that we set aside for this exact purpose.”

Morse emphasized that for boarding students in quarantine, this doesn’t mean they will be stuck in their rooms for the entire isolation period. Their remote learning plan includes synchronous, or live, participation, and they will have opportunity for outdoor activity and continued on-campus training for athletes.

“If a day student and/or his or her parents are not comfortable attending in person, the student is welcome to join our classes synchronously and remotely,” Morse wrote.

She acknowledges the anxiety the news may cause and encouraged students, staff and families “to seek to understand by leading with questions, assuming the best in others and leveraging any discomfort you might feel as motivation to follow the precautionary protocols that are proven to reduce the risk of exposure and spread.”

Morse noted that testing all students is not the protocol being followed by all schools, nor necessarily the recommended protocol. Part of that is logistics and cost; however, it is also a choice Steamboat Mountain School made with intention, she said, knowing it could mean finding asymptomatic cases that otherwise would likely never have been identified.

“We realize that with a small population we are able to do surveillance testing,” she said, and that “as soon as there is a positive result, it can result in an uproar for our own community and the greater community. This is a deliberate, cautious approach. We are not shutting down campus or being alarmist, and we are prioritizing in-person learning. But having knowledge is part of that, and being open and honest is part of that.”

The school is committed to being upfront with families and the greater community, she said. Families also agreed to cover the cost of the PCR as well as on-campus antigen testing.

“Let’s find out and move forward,” Morse said of the school’s strategy, adding the school has received a lot of support from families.

In terms of test accuracy, Morse emphasizes Steamboat Mountain School is making decisions on the best information it has and prioritizing the safety of the students and community.

Morse said the three cases were initially going to be classified as being outside Routt County, but with new information from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, it is unclear where they will be counted.

“The school isn’t in a position to make a judgment whether cases were transmitted on campus or somewhere else — we just respond to a positive test,” Morse said.

As of Sunday, there were 134 COVID-19 cases listed in Routt County.

It is still an evolving situation at Steamboat Mountain School, Morse said.

“We are erring on the side of caution for the overall health and well-being of the students and community,” she added.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.

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