Faulty HVAC system may have played a role in COVID-19 outbreak at suburban Philly school

At least eight second-grade students at Penn Valley Elementary School and two fully vaccinated parents have tested positive for COVID-19, the Lower Merion School District announced.

District officials said they are investigating whether the school’s HVAC system may have played a role in transmission in the Penn Valley classroom. There is no evidence of transfer outside that class.

The district surgery department inspected the room and found that a manual damper in the plumbing above the ceiling was closed too far, leaving only about 30% of the maximum amount of fresh air that should have been cycled into the classroom.

“LMSD cannot say definitively whether the reduced fresh air flow contributed to the outbreak; however, it may be a factor,” said the district said. “Montgomery County Office of Public Health has also raised the possibility that a variant of COVID-19 is a factor, citing both its rapid spread within the classroom and the fact that two vaccinated relatives of affected students also tested positive.”

Children generally have mild COVID-19 infections, but they have been identified as a growing source of possible spread of the virus and its variants.

In particular, the B.1.1.7 variant has been associated with a wider spread of COVID-19 in schools, which has gradually expanded to personal learning in recent months. Pennsylvania has had one of the highest rates of B.1.1.7 transmission in the United States, accounting for about one-third of variant infections in the state since last week, according to CDC data.

The parents who tested positive despite vaccination, represent potential breakthrough cases occurring in a small percentage of adults who have undergone complete immunization.

At a White House press conference earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci explained that breakthrough cases will undoubtedly happen in any population with high vaccination levels. What remains to be determined is which COVID-19 variants are more likely to cause infection despite full vaccination.

“One of the important things that will be done and must be done is to sequence the genome of the virus which is the breakthrough virus because it would be very important to see if [it is] the wild-type virus, which would indicate a real decrease in immunity, or that it broke through with one of the variants, which would be much easier to explain if you don’t have enough cross-reactivity, ” said Fauci, director of the National institute for allergy and infectious diseases.

In most of the breakthrough cases observed to date, the infections have been mild and have not resulted in serious consequences. Lower Merion officials did not disclose the severity of the parents’ infections.

District officials said they don’t have the ability to test which strain of COVID-19 was involved in the school outbreak, but the district has committed to a full inspection of its ventilation systems.

“ Since the discovery of the faulty manual damper, in addition to the in-depth cleaning performed in that classroom, operations personnel have performed an HVAC system sensor check and will be performing it in all buildings over the weekend and in the coming weeks, ” the district said.

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