by Ashley Archibald
Health officials stressed the importance of vaccination as well as practicing social distancing and wearing masks, even in places where people are not required to do so, to protect students as they return to schools amid a spike in coronavirus cases caused by the delta variant across Washington State.
In a Sept. 2 press conference, health officials said that despite the surge in cases and concerns about hospital bed availability, it is important for the wellness of young people that they return to school. Officials emphasized masking, social distancing, vaccination for eligible students aged 12 and above, and observing COVID protocols in families’ daily lives.
Dr. Scott Lindquist — acting chief science officer for the Department of Health (DOH), practicing pediatrician, and father of three — likened it to teenagers learning to drive, saying that there are risks but a bigger reward.
“I understand that risk, but the benefit so outweighs the risk and the things we can do to help mitigate that, as previously talked about … it’s time. It’s time to get our kids back to school,” Lindquist said.
Roughly 150 school districts are partnering with Learn to Return, a DOH program that offers a playbook including guidance to reopen schools and a State COVID-19 testing program. Public school teachers are also required to receive the coronavirus vaccine by Oct. 18, 2021. Compliance will be monitored by district human resources departments.
It’s also crucial for communities to follow precautions such as mask mandates, social distancing, and vaccination to prevent transmission during school time. As yet, children under the age of 12 cannot receive the vaccine, and only 41% of young people aged 12 to 15 and 48% of teens between 16 and 17 were fully vaccinated as of Aug. 30.
“As a community, we can surround these kids with protection,” said Michaela Miller, deputy superintendent of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
As of next week, all 1.1 million students in Washington will be back to a mix of in-person and online learning, depending on the district. In the meantime, coronavirus cases — fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant — are surging in the state. Washington is in the middle of its fifth wave of novel coronavirus cases. While statewide cases have plateaued, in previous waves that has meant a surge of hospitalizations and deaths.
So far, hospitalizations in the state have been going up, Lindquist said, but deaths have been flat.
The fifth wave has put pressure on hospitals. Lindquist recommended that people not engage in “risky” behaviors over the Labor Day weekend, saying that hospitals overrun with COVID-19 patients may not be able to accommodate other emergencies as quickly.
In a separate press conference from Public Health — Seattle & King County to announce a new mask mandate for outdoor events with 500 or more participants, Dr. Steve Mitchell of Harborview Medical Center encouraged people with pressing medical conditions like heart attacks and strokes to seek care at King County hospitals if needed but implored people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus and use safety precautions in order to keep hospital beds open.
“The delta variant has changed everything,” Mitchell said. “For health care these are the most difficult days, the most challenging days, that we have seen throughout the pandemic.”
Mitchell said that there are 1,643 patients with COVID-19 in state hospitals, 400 of whom entered inpatient care in the past week. In King County alone, the seven-day average of positive COVID-19 cases is 600 cases per day, a 500% increase compared to this time in 2020.
Lindquist said that hospitalization rate modeling he’s seen from DOH staff “does not look good.”
State officials also announced that Washington State is participating in a pilot program with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to actively monitor breakthrough cases of the coronavirus, i.e., cases among people who have already been vaccinated.
The previous method used as recently as a month ago was “passive,” meaning they relied on health care providers to report someone who tested positive and then the State looked at whether or not those people had been fully vaccinated. The new pilot would look at all positive results and match them against vaccination status.
Ashley Archibald is a freelance journalist with previous work in Real Change, the Santa Monica Daily Press, and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development.
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