COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) — Dealing with a coronavirus pandemic, El Paso County Public Health made maps available for people to see how close the spread is coming to them — but are local military installations preventing an accurate mapping of the disease?
A KRDO NewsChannel 13 investigation revealed a missing piece of COVID-19 data, and some parents fear that could prevent school districts from having a full snapshot of the local spread when deciding to reopen classrooms.
The El Paso County Health Department said on Thursday it isn’t allowed to publicly release COVID-19 case numbers by zip code when it involves military installations.
The issue stems from a Department of Defense order aimed at protecting national security. It prevents local health departments from releasing information about when someone tests positive on a military base.
However, KRDO found it’s not just active duty military members that test on base. Military spouses, children, and retirees are eligible to be tested on base.
It’s an issue that is particularly concerning for parents who live in a school district with a large military population, like Melissa Ellenberger.
Ellenberger has spent the summer navigating her how her daughter will spend her senior year attending District 49. She became more anxious when she learned D49 may not have all of the COVID-19 data for a portion of its students with ties to the military.
Ellenberger, a military wife, said she understands the security concerns surrounding releasing COVID-19 information about active-duty members, but wonders if it’s necessary to withhold information from school districts about their dependents.
“When you’re dealing with the health and welfare of our children, you really have to take the safest course possible. And when we don’t have all the numbers, it’s even more important to err on the side of caution,” Ellenberger said.
Peterson Air Force Base told KRDO around 25,000 people, or about 3% of the El Paso County population, have access to their COVID-19 testing site. Air Force officials said that all tests are submitted to county health officials and note that the base has a lower coronavirus positive rate than the city or county. Fort Carson hadn’t provided information per our request as of Thursday.
To be clear, the tests that are conducted at military installations are included in the total count in El Paso County, according to Public Health. Health officials do not break results down by specific zip codes like they do with tests at other sites.
“Regardless of whether a student is military or non-military, if there have been exposures in a school or in a daycare, we’ll be working directly with that facility to make sure they are taking the appropriate steps to send children home who might be at risk of developing COVID and becoming infectious, or working for notice of determination that it’s still safe to proceed with in-person learning,” Kimberly Pattison with the El Paso County Health Department said.
Despite concerns from some parents, local districts with ties to Colorado Springs’ military community say they’re confident in the process.
District 49 told KRDO 23% of its students are connected to the military.
When asked about the lack of data, a D49 spokesperson sent us this statement.
“We trust our partners at El Paso County Public Health to keep us informed with the best possible information to support our decision to resume in-person learning. We also trust our partners in the military to honor their commitment to be good neighbors to the Pikes Peak region and to collaborate with leaders like EPCPH to ensure critical information is shared and available in the interests of public health and safety.
We are certain both EPCPH and our military partners have only acted with the highest level of integrity in the interest of public safety, and
District 49 is confident we are receiving thorough information to guide our most important decisions about safely returning to in-person learning.”
-David Nancarrow, District 49
District 20 said close to one in five of its student families has a link to the military or federal workforce.
District leaders say they work closely with health officials to monitor the ever-changing conditions during the pandemic.
“Nearly 20% of our district’s families have a connection to our local military installations. Therefore knowing COVID-19 testing data from military bases is incorporated into local health reports provides us a holistic snapshot of the region’s infection rates”
-Allison Cortez with Academy District 20
In District 8, 70% of students have ties to the military. The district said it is in constant communication with officials at Fort Carson
“We have a strong and close working relationship with Fort Carson’s leadership and work and communicate with them regularly and have historically on many issues related base that just now happens to include a pandemic. We are in regular communication with them. We believe we have safety protocols in place to keep our students and staff safe”
-Christy McGee with Fountain-Fort Carson District 8.
County health officials said despite not being able to report military numbers by zip code, they will use their knowledge of military COVID-19 cases to inform school districts.
“This is a community project that everybody needs to be involved in. So, it’s not just the knowledge about the data. It’s making sure that if you have a student, you’re screening them for symptoms before they are going. And that you’re keeping a low threshold of when you’re choosing to keep your student home,” Pattison said.
But for some parents, that missing piece of publicly available data could help ease their minds.
“I’m nervous to send my child back without knowing what the real numbers are, versus a potential number of numbers that we do know and then a whole bunch of hidden numbers,” Ellenberger said.