‘Bound to happen': 16 COVID-19 cases linked to Marvin Ridge HS graduation ceremony

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — Union County Schools announced Tuesday that more than 20 people have tested positive for COVID-19 linked to two clusters at schools in the county.

Public health officials identified 16 people who tested positive that attended Marvin Ridge High School’s graduation.

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They said that while some of those people may have been together at other events, the only common link they all share is the June 24 graduation ceremony. Officials said everyone who tested positive is under 20.

In graduation video posted to Facebook, you can see Marvin Ridge students sitting in chairs with space between them and family members in the bleachers appearing to have space around them. It appeared many who attended the graduation did not wear face coverings.

“To be honest, I was kind of surprised at first that it was still going on,” said Marvin Ridge High School graduate Gabriel Azie.

He told Channel 9 he had mixed feelings leading up to the in-person graduation.

“It was kind of bittersweet because I was, like, happy that I could see everyone for a final time, but it did go against what the governor was saying,” Azie said. “We just tried to be as prepared as we could, wearing our masks and trying to maintain social distancing.”

Azie said he and his family were extra careful. They didn't take pictures with anyone and, for the most part, the whole event was socially distanced and organized.

“It kind of got a little out of hand when we were dismissing because it wasn’t organized,” he said.

Some pictures posted on Facebook show people in close proximity at the event, and not everyone was wearing a mask.

“I’m not really surprised either when you have such a big event with so many people there,” Azie said. “It’s kind of bound to happen.”

COVID-19 transmission can happen 2-14 days after exposure to the virus, so there is the possibility that others have not developed symptoms yet or may be positive and asymptomatic.

>> Here’s where to get tested in Union County

Officials said anyone who attended the Marvin Ridge High School graduation “needs to take additional precautions when interacting with individuals from our vulnerable population. If attendees or someone in their home develops symptoms, seek out COVID-19 testing from your physician.”

A second cluster was identified at East Union Middle School involving five staff members who were working together.

While many other districts held drive-thru graduation ceremonies, the Union County school board voted to defy Gov. Roy Cooper’s order and instead held in-person graduation ceremonies. The decision came after a drive-by student protest.

Superintendent Dr. Andrew Houlihan approved the plan. The Sheriff’s Office knew about the decision but decided not to interfere with the graduation plan.

School Board Chair Melissa Merrell sent Channel 9 a statement Tuesday saying the district provided clear health and safety guidance including social distancing protocols.

Statement from UCPS:

“As Union County Public Schools held graduations, the district provided clear health and safety guidance for graduates and their guests.

“Ceremonies included social distancing protocols, and staff encouraged all attendees to wear face coverings. In addition, hand sanitizer or hand washing stations were available at each stadium.”

Large gatherings are still prohibited under the governor's order, Channel 9 education reporter Elsa Gillis asked the district and board members Wednesday if the decision was a mistake, and what they'd say to community members concerned that it put people's health at risk.

They did not respond to those questions.

The North Carolina Board of Education met on Wednesday with state health officials on the impact of reopening. Officials said that so far, schools have not seemed to play a major role in virus transmission. Studies from Asia found that school closures did not contribute to the control of the epidemic. It also said school closures alone would prevent 2% to 4% percent of deaths.

Channel 9 spoke with a doctor at Atrium Health who said based on the small number of studies out there, transmission between children is on the lower side. The virus is more likely to spread from an adult to a child, so it may not spread through schools as easily as the flu does.

The White House taskforce is pushing ahead, wanting schools to reopen for in-person learning this fall. Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday that it’s time to get our kids back to school.

The head of the CDC said their guidelines should be seen as guidance, not requirements, and said the CDC will issue new, clearer guidance next week.