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Coronavirus outbreak escalates at Mingus Mountain Academy

The entrance to Mingus Mountain Academy is at the end of a dirt road near Mingus Mountain. VVN.Vyto Starinskas

The entrance to Mingus Mountain Academy is at the end of a dirt road near Mingus Mountain. VVN.Vyto Starinskas

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Mingus Mountain Academy is a private, all-girls alternative high school is located on a 120-acre campus surrounded by National Forest at the base of Mingus Mountain in Prescott Valley. (Google Earth)

MINGUS MOUNTAIN -- Driving the three-mile dusty dirt road near Mingus Mountain, you would never suspect you are nearing Yavapai County’s only coronarvirus hot zone.

Small signs on the narrow power line road point the way to the Mingus Mountain Academy, an accredited residential treatment center for emotionally and behaviorally at-risk adolescent girls.

Mingus Mountain Academy has reported 84 out of 141 students have tested positive for coronavirus as of Wednesday, according to Yavapai County Community Health Services Public Health Coordinator Terri Farneti. Twenty staff members have also tested positive, she reported Thursday morning.

“This outbreak is a serious one for Yavapai County, as we only had 90 cases prior to the beginning of this outbreak,” Farneti said, referring to the countywide total.

All the students at the school have been tested and some retested, explained Farneti. Some have tested negative. Yavapai Regional Medical Center conducted the testing of students on-site, she said.

Mingus Mountain Academy, which is located in Prescott National Forest between Jerome and Prescott Valley, was founded in 1985 on a 120-acre campus.

Their group homes give students the opportunity to re-enter society living in nearby communities and getting part-time jobs while continuing treatment and education on campus, according to its website.

The school’s programs combine “relational engagement, caring staff, careful medical treatment, individualized psychotherapy and education, and numerous activities including our unique equestrian program.” Many students have “experienced significant trauma, according to their website.

The academy has a Nursing and Medical Department, as well as clinical services, Farneti said. They have an on-site nurse, and are consulting a local pediatrician.

“The Emergency Operations Center fulfilled their order of personal protection equipment last week,” said Farneti.

“Initially two students showing symptoms were taken to the hospital to be tested. They were positive, but not hospitalized,” Farneti said. “As of the 60 tested after that, 40 were positive … last the school reported, only one was symptomatic … the rest were asymptomatic.”

But as more students began to become symptomatic, YCCHS contacted YRMC and the additional testing of all students took place May 8, she added.

Farneti said no students have needed hospitalization, and are being treated on campus and though telemedicine services.

The Mingus Mountain Academy numbers have dramatically increased the overall case-numbers in the county, Farneti said. Most of the county’s new cases are being associated with Mingus Mountain Academy students or staff.

“Due to the low occurrence of symptoms, low rate of complications and hospitalization among young people, this outbreak is not as serious at this point as one, in say, a nursing home or assisted living facility where vulnerable populations are in congregate living setting,” Farneti said.

“Our greatest concern is the Academy staff, and whether or not they’ve all been tested, as we’ve strongly recommended, and whether or not there are household contacts or community contacts of those staff,” Farneti said.

Farneti said when the staff is tested, then the health department can trace their contacts in the community and recommend additional testing of household and community contacts.

Mingus Mountain Academy released a statement through the health department that read: “We have continued to take steps to mitigate the risks of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Unfortunately, despite those efforts, we are currently addressing a cluster of cases on our campus. We are grateful that thus far no one is showing any severe symptoms of the disease. However, we are monitoring the situation closely, and students and staff with positive test results are currently in isolation and receiving the best care possible.

“Our program is following a stringent screening process for all individuals on our campus to confirm no one else is showing potential symptoms of this virus,” the statement read. “We also continue to keep our referral partners informed and are committed to taking whatever steps necessary to prevent further spread of this virus at Mingus.”

REPORTING THE OUTBREAK

Some state media outlets and sources have suggested that the Yavapai County Public Defender’s Office attempted to keep information related to the outbreak at the Mingus Mountain Academy secret.

Yavapai County Community Health Services Director Leslie Horton said she shared the information with the Yavapai County judges upon learning of cases from Yavapai Regional Medical Center.

With this outbreak, YCCHS has provided daily reports on the status of the outbreak without breaching federally protected confidentiality laws. In the case of Mingus Mountain Academy, the department again was taking strides to protect confidential information while still properly dispensing important public health information.

In an email message to the Thursday morning, May 14, Horton explained her department was notified of the possible outbreak at Mingus Mountain Academy from Yavapai Regional Medical Center on April 30 after its staff members were asked to conduct testing of 60 students at the Prescott Valley campus facilities. The testing was arranged after two students were brought to the hospital on April 26 and 27 with symptoms, those cases incorporated into the daily tally, she said.

“The test results from the 60 students began coming in over the following weekend, and we released the results along with the statement from Mingus Mountain Academy on May 4 when we had all of the information compiled, reported by YRMC, and confirmed in the Medsis EMR system,” Horton said of their official tracking data. “When I mentioned the probable outbreak in a meeting with all Yavapai County judges on May 1 we were starting to see preliminary positive test results, and many of the Mingus Mountain students have interaction with the local justice system, creating possibilities of exposure amongst our courts and attorneys.

“At this time we were also working with the school to assure that they were doing what they could to mitigate spread as more positive test results came in, acquire additional PPE for staff and students, and try to contain the virus from infecting additional students, staff, and public including internal contact tracing.”

To assure accuracy of data, with many of these students coming from outside of Yavapai County, Horton said her staff was attempting to make sure it had proper information before disseminating it publicly, as well as offering time for Mingus Mountain Academy to prepare a statement.

“We released the data and statement publicly on Monday, May 4, when that information was confirmed and complete,” Horton said. “This was not in any way influenced by the public defender’s office. This was a complicated and very sensitive situation. We did our best to allow the school to address the outbreak publicly, as we released the information publicly.

“This was and continues to be so drastically different due to extent of the outbreak, and within a congregate setting, due to the anonymity of the students, the protection of health information, the dealings within the criminal justice system, and the careful delivery of this sensitive information to the public.”

Mingus Mountain Academy leaders have referred all inquiries to their public relations firm. Repeated emails and phone messages to the treatment facility’s spokesperson Darby Dame have yet to be answered.

Daily Courier Reporter Nanci Hutson contributed to this story.

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