The COVID guidelines for California public schools changed so rapidly over the past 24 hours that Santa Barbara County’s Public Health director had to say on Tuesday morning that her update included the latest she’d read at Twitter and in news accounts. As Van Do-Reynoso gave what she said was her last presentation to the Board of Supervisors — “though COVID may not be completely behind us” — media outlets received yet another release from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).
The latest one was sent to clarify previous information: To ensure safe in-person instruction for kindergarten through 12th grade, and because all schools were unable to physically distance their students, masks would be required indoors for all — to “ensure that all kids are treated the same” — and California would continue to provide access to free testing to schools.
Goleta schools have reduced their student count to about 17 per classroom for the fall, said board president Luz Reyes-Martín, noting that most students were younger than 12 years old, the current vaccine cut-off age. Each classroom had HEPA filters, and masks would be required indoors but not outdoors.
At Santa Barbara schools, Superintendent Hilda Maldonado stated they’d be following the state’s guidelines, as they must. The district was in the process of formulating an independent study option for grades 1-12, she added. In addition, the district has bought tents to increase outdoor instruction: “Outdoors, students can still play together at recess, eat lunch, and learn — without wearing a mask,” Maldonado said. The state’s guidance and variant information is very much in flux, and Do-Reynoso said she expected an update or revision come fall.
Vaccination has only been available for 12- to 17-year-olds since May, and so far about 63 percent of the 12-15 age group has yet to be vaccinated in the county, Do-Reynoso reported. To stem any complacency that the virus was less prevalent among children, she and the county’s health officer, Dr. Henning Ansorg, told the board of a recent report: In a 2nd-grade classroom in Northern California, a teacher removed her mask to read to the children, and the first two rows of students all came down with COVID. “Children are at lower risk but they are not immune,” Do-Reynoso cautioned.
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She noted that in the past three days, COVID cases had increased, most likely due to the doubly infectious Delta variant. “The Delta variant represented 50 percent of the sequencing done in the county as of this morning,” she said, “and the key message to convey is that the vaccine remains critical for protection against infection, especially with the variants that are circulating.”
Ansorg added that the Delta virus behaved differently. They were no longer sure that six feet was a sufficiently safe social distance. Public Health has few measures to combat infections in schools, he noted, distance, contact investigation, and masks — and maybe handwashing and ventilation. “If you take social distancing away, it puts a significant hole in our protections. That’s probably why CDPH feels very strongly about this masking.”
According to the CDPH, 4.9 cases among 100,000 in population occurred in unvaccinated people, Ansorg noted. Among the vaccinated, it was significantly less: 0.6 per 100,000.
“As far as preventable deaths,” Ansorg said, “it is striking to see in particular among recent deaths 100 percent were unvaccinated people.” Since May, five people have died. “Every single death could have been prevented with a vaccine,” he iterated.
To be able to fully declare victory over COVID, Ansorg put the necessary herd immunity at 95 percent, an extremely high bar. Among all ages, the county was at 59 percent fully vaccinated. He acknowledged the various directives, recommendations, and advisories were “moving targets,” and he put it down to the changing variants the virus was producing among the people it infected, mutations that were hard to predict.
The county’s rate of COVID disease was currently 1.9, which by the old system was better than the yellow tier. Ansorg said he’d get “a little nervous” if it doubled to 4. But if it reached 6 per 100,000, “I’d probably consider reinstating certain mandates, or make recommendations at least.”