More about the Map

Kelli Caseman, Executive Director

It’s been called all three– the good, the bad, and the ugly. The new “School Alert System,” aka the color-coded COVID-19 map that the West Virginia Department of Education, in conjunction with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, launched last week, uses a color-coded metric to determine whether schools in your county will be able to hold in-person classes and scheduled athletic events and extracurricular activities.

So, is it good, bad, or ugly? Let’s take a closer look.

The map is based on the COVID Risk Level Map created by the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI). It’s a tool for policy makers and people like us to use to help us make decisions on how to respond to active outbreaks. It maps the data to illustrate the severity of current disease activity, so states, counties, and people can make collective or individual responses.

One of the researchers in the creation of the map said its goal is to create “clear and consistent visibility” on how the virus is spreading. “We also collectively need to keep focused on what should be our main target: a path to near zero case incidence.”

Let me oversimply; it’s a lot like a weather forecast. If it looks like rain, you take your umbrella. If a severe thunderstorm is coming, you may unplug your computer. If a snowstorm is coming, you may go to the store, stock up on bread and milk, and stay in for a few days.

On HGHI’s map, risk levels are determined by a ratio of new daily cases per 100,000 people. Risk levels are color-coded. And so, if my home county is green, I may still choose to go to lunch and shopping, wearing my mask and socially distancing. If it’s orange, maybe I just go to the store when I need the basic necessities. And if it’s red, I stay home. 

HGHI’s map is widely revered and utilized, and it’s the basis of our state’s “School Alert System” map. Specifically, what our COVID-19 taskforce and WVDHHR staff have done is change the way positive cases among nursing homes residents and prisoners are counted, because these are people who do not interact with those outside of their congregate setting. So if there is an outbreak in a nursing home in your community, for example, all those folks count as one case per facility.

Here’s an example: a nursing home in Mercer County reported a few weeks ago that they had 20 residents at the home have tested positive for COVID-19 along with 24 staff members. The 20 residential cases would count as one case; the 24 staff member cases would count as 24 cases, because they are still interacting within the community.

This is an important distinction to make, especially when we consider how virus spread should affect in-school learning. Take, for example, Tyler County, where my parents live. As of 2018, there were 8,746 people living there. They have two nursing homes– one is a 68-bed facility. They could potentially have an outbreak in that nursing home that would change the county’s color on the map to red, even though no one (assuming visitation was suspended) in the community would be interacting with the nursing home patients, besides staff.

To me, this is a meaningful and important change. It’s a good tweak.

Here’s where you can find the map. Scroll down to the dashboard and choose the second tab on the left: School Alert System. It is updated daily. At 10am every day, you’ll see the date from the previous day on the far right of this screen. These are the number of daily cases. However, each county’s officially designated status– its color– will be determined on a weekly basis. That will happen at approximately 9 p.m. each Saturday.

Both WVDE and WVDHHR have done some PR to explain the map and process. Here’s a great interview with COVID-19 czar, Dr. Clay Marsh. Here’s a video with state superintendent, Clayton Burch. Also, here’s Governor Justice’s announcement and description.

The Governor has heralded the “School Alert System” as a one-of-a-kind. That’s not completely accurate. New Jersey has a similar map they’re using for re-entry. I bet we’ll see more state maps in the weeks ahead.  

Finally, I agree with those who say that the rollout of the system was confusing. And it’s going to be incredibly hard for schools to pivot on a weekly basis, if the level of disease activity increases to another color level in their county. No doubt about it; this is the ugly part. All of this will be hard, new territory, moving forward.