Chattanooga wastewater analysis and other indicators show that COVID-19 cases are rising as students across the region prepare to return to the classroom for a new school year, likely fueling more disease spread.

It's normal for the schools to see a surge in respiratory illnesses associated with breaks, such as summer break, winter holidays and spring break, said Layra Navarro, the community health manager for Hamilton County Schools.

In the first month of the 2021-22 school year, when the delta variant of the coronavirus was gaining steam, Hamilton County school-aged children accounted for roughly 1 in 4 of the county's new COVID-19 cases.

The first half of last school year saw a surge in young patients with respiratory syncytial virus — a common respiratory virus that can cause severe breathing problems for babies — that strained the local children's hospital.

The respiratory virus typically circulated during the fall and winter followed by influenza, but cases dropped dramatically in 2020 due to COVID-19 mitigation measures, CEO of the Children's Hospital at Erlanger Dr. Charles Woods, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, said in a phone interview.

"During the pandemic, we missed a couple of RSV and flu seasons all together," he said.

The respiratory virus then came roaring back in July 2021 once children returned to more pre-pandemic activities. Last year, the virus began taking off in late August, and influenza made a strong appearance in the fall, contributing to a record-breaking patient surge at Erlanger Children's hospital.

In 2022, influenza fizzled out before its usual winter peak.

"Many of us are interested to see if our seasonal patterns are going to shift back towards pre-pandemic time frames versus being a little bit out of kilter timewise," Woods said.

Although it's likely that a return to school will cause a larger uptick in COVID-19 cases, Woods said it's unlikely to cause a major surge in hospitalizations — though that's not to say that the now prevalent COVID-19 variants aren't dangerous, particularly for older adults.

"We're not getting as sick with them at different ages because so many of us have some preexisting, partial immunity to them now," he said. "Different components for our immune system kick in pretty fast, and so you have a cold for a few days as opposed to the major serious illness that we used to be so concerned about, at least in people under 65."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County student survives rare syndrome linked to COVID-19)

Parents are encouraged to promote good hand washing habits and stock up on needed supplies, including COVID-19 tests, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, Navarro said.

Although schools are now treating COVID-19 like other communicable diseases, such as influenza, the district will continue to offer free rapid COVID-19 testing for students.

"If they go into the nurse showing some symptoms, needing to go home, the nurse will ask, 'Are you wanting to go ahead and take a COVID test or not?' We have parental consent on file. If we don't, then we ask," she said.

The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows COVID-19 hospital admissions, emergency department visits, test positivity and wastewater levels are increasing nationally.

"CDC's guidance for individual and community actions around COVID-19 are tied to hospital admission levels, which are currently low for more than 99% of the country," the CDC website states.

As of Aug. 2, there were 17 patients with COVID-19 in Hamilton County hospitals — which is the most since mid-May — according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at [email protected] or 423-757-6673.

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