If you are like me, making sense of the world of COVID is hard. Over the past two years, we have gone to enormous lengths to protect ourselves from this virus. As a school community, we have done remarkably well with mitigation strategies and with our entire community adhering to the basic safety practices including vaccinations, mask-wearing, and pooled testing. All of these strategies were essential in protecting our health and ensuring that our healthcare systems were able to manage the volume.
As the Omicron variant edges out Delta, the realities of COVID and the strategies to address them are changing dramatically. We are seeing explosive growth in the number of people infected with the virus and yet, unlike at the beginning of the pandemic when public health officials advised schools to all go remote, they are now advising us to stay the course in person. How does this make sense given the current rates of infection?
Edward Ryan, M.D., Director of International Infectious Disease at Massachusetts General Hospital told an audience of school leaders, “Omicron lives in your nose and upper respiratory area which is what makes it so contagious. It isn’t able to bond with your lungs like the other variants.” He goes on to say that there is no need to stay home from work or to be a hermit but there are still risks for the unvaccinated, immunocompromised, or older than 85.
PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has carefully followed the emerging science on COVID-19 infection and offered guidance to schools throughout the region. Their current guidance is as follows. “With rising anxiety about the Omicron variant that is swiftly moving across our communities, we affirm that in contrast to last year, when many community members were unvaccinated, this new variant has been milder than earlier COVID-19 strains for most children, and is occurring during a time when all K-12 students and their caregivers have been offered vaccination. The Omicron variant is also particularly less virulent for those who have been vaccinated. We advise school leaders to consider this emerging data so that children can resume in-person education in the new year, so long as schools are able to staff their campuses for returning students. In the interim, we encourage staff who have not received boosters to obtain them, and for families who have not yet vaccinated their children to do the same.”
Joe Lawlor’s story in the Press Herald today provides a good comprehensive overview of the situation in our State. He quotes our former Maine CDC Director Dora Mills as saying, “Omicron is so extremely contagious it is like having a field that’s completely on fire…With Delta, there are a lot of fires here and there but you could walk through the fields and not get burnt. Now the whole field is on fire.” It is clear that over the next several weeks we will be experiencing unprecedented numbers of cases and then, with any luck, they will begin to decrease at a rapid rate. Dr. Ryan’s prediction is that March will be nice. I hope he is right.
From a policy and COVID protocol perspective, we will need to be nimble in the days ahead. The best advice we have heard is to stay the course with everyone wearing high-quality, well-fitting masks, continue with pooled testing, encourage vaccines and boosters, and have everyone with cold symptoms stay home. We will likely have many more students and teachers requiring the use of remote learning. While we will do our best to notify close contacts, our focus will shift somewhat to those who are higher risk close contacts including household exposures and those who are unvaccinated. With public health officials endorsing 5-day quarantines for positive individuals whose symptoms are resolving, we will be looking closely at our quarantine and isolation protocols in hopes of having community members back on campus as soon as safely possible. We will let you know when we are likely to shift away from our current 10-day quarantine policy.
During a presentation last week, David Rubin, MD, of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, made the case that we really need to do what we can to reduce the anxiety and stress our children feel about COVID-19. I think that is probably true for all of us. The scientific consensus seems to be that vaccinated individuals should be respectful but not fearful of Omicron. We have trusted science to be our guide and we will continue to put our faith in it going forward.
There are challenges ahead but nothing we can’t overcome. What is definite is that together we will forge through this moment, making adjustments as needed and supporting each other along the way; hopefully, we will emerge into spring with a feeling of joy and relief.