State public health officials apparently don’t have a plan to close down schools if COVID cases impact classrooms as the Delta variant spreads.
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Gov. Gavin Newsom and state public health officials haven’t said anything about potential contingency plans if schools become a hotspot for virus transmission in the face of the Delta variant.
They apparently haven’t formed contingency plans with local officials, either.
At a Tuesday news conference, Orange County Deputy Health Officer, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, said state officials are focused on getting kids back into classrooms this school year.
“I don’t have an answer for that question,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “I know that the state is really working hard to make sure kids stay in school.”
She also said local public health officials will be looking to see how school districts deal with outbreaks to learn how to best respond to the situation.
“That will have to be a case by case basis,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “There’s so many things that we can do to space kids out and keep them actively learning.”
Local public health experts are concerned about kids returning to classrooms.
“The honest answer is we don’t know how it’s going to play out because we’re dealing with a highly transmissible variant,” said UC Irvine biostatistician Vladimir Minin on Voice of OC’s Monday virtual COVID town hall.
Minin noted that most of the tactics and data schools are now relying on were developed before the highly contagious Delta variant hit.
His colleague, UCI epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin, echoed Minin’s concerns.
“What we’re seeing is in the places where schools have opened up in the presence of Delta, they had to close down very quickly. We’ve seen that in Mississippi,” Shin said during the town hall. “Within just a week of school opening up, 5 outbreaks at 5 different schools — they had to close down and go back to remote learning.”
Shin also noted a difference in vaccination rates between OC and Mississippi could also play a role.
Minin said he expects a rise in cases when school districts begin reopening in the coming weeks and noted there’s been a slight plateau in daily new cases.
“I wouldn’t say we are out of the woods at all, but most likely that’s going to change with the school reopenings,” Minin said. “That’s my anticipation because we see it with every other respiratory disease and I don’t think Delta variant would be different.”
At Tuesday’s news conference, Chinsio-Kwong said county public health officials recently confirmed the county’s first COVID-induced psychosis case in a child.
“Primarily we think it’s the inflammation of the brain that occurs,” she said. “This is what we should all be concerned about.”
Chinsio-Kwong added, “Kids are getting sick around the nation and we need to take this seriously.”
Ian Hanigan, a spokesman for the County Department of Education, acknowledged the frustration felt by parents regarding pandemic protocols at schools.
“We’re now stretching into a third school year of managing COVID-19 protocols but by law, our public schools and private schools are required to meet and exceed all standards set by the California Department of Public Health, as well as the county health officials,” Hanigan said.
Hanigan said a lot of districts have upgraded their ventilation systems and are utilizing outdoor spaces. He added each district will be planning their mitigations based on the needs of their communities and the county department of education meets with the districts regularly.
“You really want to amplify best practices. If you’ve got one district that’s doing something that’s working out there, we really want all districts to be a part of that,” Hanigan said.
He also said that social distancing in the classroom has been “downplayed” with the focus being on masks. For those opposed to wearing masks there are distance learning options available.
As of Tuesday, there were 461 people hospitalized throughout OC, including 89 in intensive care units, according to state data.
Orange County sits at a 7.8% positivity rate, according to state data.
That’s up from roughly 1% when the June 15 statewide reopening hit, which saw most pandemic restrictions disappear.
Meanwhile, some parents in the county have been pushing back against statewide school mask mandates with parent groups like “Let Them Breathe” holding rallies at school districts calling masks to be optional.
Let Them Breathe filed a lawsuit against the mask mandate in July. The Orange County Board of Education is also looking to sue over the mandate.
Children under the age of 12 are still ineligible to get the vaccine.
Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics President Dr. Lee Savio Beers sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration urging them to quickly authorize COVID vaccines for children.
“The Delta variant is surging at extremely alarming rates in every region of America. This surge is seriously impacting all populations, including children,” reads the Aug. 5 letter from Beers. “Last week saw the largest week-over-week percentage increase in pediatric COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.”
The California Department of Public Health put out guidance for K-12 schools in July mandating masks at schools for everyone indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.