When the Omicron coronavirus variant appeared in the United States in late 2021, government officials warned that it was the most contagious variant they had seen to date. By early January 2022, Omicron had become the dominant form of the virus in that country. And now, not surprisingly, the BA.2 Omicron sub-option is causing another increase in Covid cases.
At the same time, there was growing evidence that Omicron was less deadly than previous versions. The risk of hospitalization, for example, is about 50 percent lower than that of Delta, and studies show that Omicron does less damage to the lungs. Unfortunately, some people heard the news and clung to the story that Kovid was going down.
“There is a story that we will have options that are gradually becoming less difficult,” Dr. Robbie Bhattacharia, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Hospital, told NPR in January. “It’s nice to think that there may be some trend towards SARS-CoV-2 moving into a lighter form. That’s not what we see here. “
Dr. Bhattacharya has formulated the common human error – the bias of confirmation – the tendency to find support for beliefs you want or should believe, even if the evidence says you are wrong. The fact is that no one knows exactly where Covid is going, whether it will end (or when) and whether the ensuing tensions will be more or less severe.
So, is it time for schools to “get back to normal”? Can we safely waive some of the precautions we have introduced? No, Covid is still very much with us.
Here are some facts about Covid-19:
The United States leads the world in the number of deaths from Covid-19. More Americans died from the disease than during any war. In the civil war, the deadliest in the history of the country, for four years, from 1861 to 1865, 498,332 people died. Kovid has killed nearly a million Americans in half that time.
Although evidence shows that the Omicron variant is less deadly than the Delta strain that preceded it, Omicron spreads more easily and thus infects more people. According to data published on March 9, 2022, an average of 1,350 Americans died from Covid every day. Washington Post. At the peak of the Omicron surge on February 4, 2022, an average of 2,647 people died per day; it is close to the peak of the pandemic of 3328 deaths on January 29, 2021, before widespread vaccination. The death toll at Omicron is staggering, given that the vast majority of deaths from this option occurred among unvaccinated individuals, who make up only about 23 percent of the population. Although the number of newly reported cases is declining to around 37,000 per day, large surges are still occurring in some local regions.
Vaccination provides significant protection against Covid and especially against infection with a serious case of the disease, but it does not eliminate the danger, especially for individuals with other risk factors. Even among vaccinated people, Omicron is still easily transmitted in all social settings, including schools and homes, and the disease occurs in all age groups. The same is likely to apply to any future strains of Covid-19.
The facts are obvious and the risk is great, but children face serious risks to their learning and social development if they miss time at school. It is imperative that schools be as open as possible, but maintaining them safely will require effective mitigation and public awareness strategies for some time.
Transmission in schools
Schools are the perfect environment for the spread of Covid-19. Studies have shown that children can become infected and spread Covid-19 just as easily as adults. Children of any age can endure high viral loads that they can pass on to their parents, teachers and others.
Monitoring symptoms is not an effective strategy for detecting infected children because nearly 50 percent of children show no symptoms. Covid-19 is rarely fatal to children, but during the peak of the Omicron surge, January 7, 2022, CDC Director Rachel Valensky announced that the Omicron causes more than 760 children to be hospitalized daily. The most affected groups are those under the age of 5 who are not eligible for vaccination, and children between the ages of 5 and 11, of whom only 16 percent are fully vaccinated. Valensky said at the time that “pediatric hospitalizations have the highest rate compared to any previous moment of the pandemic.”
The CDC reported that in May 2021, an unvaccinated California teacher handed over a Delta version to her elementary school students, resulting in 26 Covid cases among students and their contacts. Before undergoing the examination, the teacher experienced symptoms for two days and continued to work. During this time, the teacher read aloud to her class without a mask, despite the school’s requirement for a mask. This case shows that if schools are opened without the necessary precautions during the Covid outbreak, it is likely that teachers and children will play a role in the transmission of the virus. It is therefore very important that we do not fail our protection.
Everyone needs to know the basics
Students, parents, school staff, and anyone in the larger community who is associated with these individuals should have basic information about Covid-19 transmission and how to reduce it through established procedures. Schools should provide several mandatory information sessions for all components of the school, and basic information about Covid should be widely disseminated – in schools and throughout the community. Students, staff and parents should be asked to sign a statement stating that they understand and will abide by all the rules.
Everyone needs to know how the virus spreads, which situations are most dangerous and how to avoid such situations. Covid-19 is spread by human-to-human contact, whether people are in each other’s presence or leave remnants of the virus by touching objects, talking, eating, or simply inhaling in an area where others gather or pass.
For schools, hazardous areas include not only school facilities but also homes of students and staff, and wherever these people go, including shops, banks, gas stations, cars, buses, bus stops, cafeterias, corridors , classrooms, lockers, gyms, locker rooms, bathrooms, etc. As has long been recommended, everyone should wear a mask outside a completely safe environment, wash their hands often and move away from society safely. People need to be reminded that these are effective mitigation strategies, like disinfecting and ventilating schools and homes.
Attach precautions to levels of transmission in society
Schools are increasingly facing public pressure to stay open even during the strongest jumps and abandon requirements for masks and other precautions. Schools can withstand this pressure by strictly tying precautions to the level of transmission in society. Information about these conditions is regularly reported to the CDC at the county level, and this information is accompanied by the agency’s recommendations as to what precautions schools should take at certain transmission levels. Linking precautionary measures to the level of risk precludes assumptions for school officials and provides an objective rationale for the safeguards they impose.
Given the rapid increase in the number of new options, we believe that even in low-transfer areas (marked by the CDC as “green”) schools should continue to require masks for students and staff, use social distancing and hold regular disinfecting classrooms and other school surfaces. Although the latest CDC guidelines do not require these precautions, except in overcrowded classroom situations, we believe they should remain in place until a more reliable way to warn in advance of new high-pass options emerges. At higher levels of community transfer, the school should implement a schedule to reduce the number of students present at one time. In addition, schools should offer a full online option for all students whose families are unwilling to take the risk of having their children attend classes in person. This option will also reduce the density of students in the school.
Finally, at the highest levels of transmission (they call “orange” or “red”) the school must move to distance learning to protect students, staff, family members and society at large. For students for whom online learning is not an option, such as those who do not have access to a reliable Internet connection, it is safe to be accommodated in the school as there will be plenty of space available in the classroom. And along with these strategies there must be adequate testing and availability of vaccinations for all eligible children.
Testing and vaccination
We strongly encourage federal, state, and local governments to provide schools with the resources to regularly test students at all levels of public transference. Regular testing can help reduce virus transmission, even in crowded environments such as college dormitories, according to research conducted at 18 Connecticut colleges and universities in the 2020-21 academic year. The authors of the study, Olivia Schultes and colleagues, concluded that “testing dormitory students for Covid-19 twice a week can serve as an effective strategy to mitigate the effects of infection in colleges and universities.” These results suggest that in K-12 schools that remain open during times of higher transmission in society, frequent testing of students and staff is crucial, and even in green conditions regular testing is mandatory. As the shortage of tests during the Omicron surge showed, schools should plan to have enough test kits on hand for a few weeks. Although testing and other mitigation strategies can be costly, the federal government has allocated funding for this purpose, as well as some states and municipalities. Because the virus spreads very quickly, the community can quickly move from minimum transmission conditions to high levels; so it is important that schools are active in providing funding for testing.
Schools should have plans to fight outbreaks. If someone in the school community takes a positive test for Covid-19, the person must be isolated for at least five days and then retake the test. In addition, schools should conduct contact tracking and encourage recommended CDC testing and quarantine measures for those who have been exposed to a Covid-positive person.
Most importantly, schools are working with their local and state health authorities to make vaccinations widely available to students, and to inform students and parents about facts regarding the safety and effectiveness of vaccination. As experience has shown during the Delta and Omicron surge, vaccination prevents serious diseases and saves lives, reduces the number of deaths by almost ten times and the same or greater reduction in the number of hospitalizations. As of March 10, 2022, according to the CDC, about 76.6 percent of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, although communities with much lower rates remain, and eligible children continue to lag behind adults). Covid may always be with us, but the more we can boost immunity with vaccines, the less chance there will be of the virus spreading.
In this essay, we outlined the steps that schools can take to minimize transfer and keep students and staff safe. School officials can refer to the CDC website for specific information and advice on prevention measures, including how to inform the school community about Covid, how to implement mitigation procedures, safety practices when transporting to and from school, and recommended procedures for testing, quarantine, and tracing.
Our extraordinary time is an era that requires us to be educated about Covid and to respect the facts. With a unity of purpose, a commitment to accurate communication and appropriate precautions, we can protect students and teachers while providing the personal learning that children need and deserve.