County officials continue to focus on vaccines as a primary tool to prevent COVID-19 from disrupting local schools as students return to class en masse across the county.

The case rates among youth have been climbing, particularly among the age groups unable to receive a vaccine, in recent weeks. However, while cases have climbed, County Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer said LA County is faring better than the national average when it comes to serious disease.

“While many municipalities nationwide are reporting rates of pediatric hospitalizations that are higher than at any previous point in the pandemic, we’ve not seen this play out in LA County,” she said.

Ferrer said that a total of 5,207 students have tested positive across the county in the past two weeks alongside 729 staff. While these numbers are high, they are not reaching levels associated with the County’s previous peak outbreak levels.

“This pattern may reflect the fact that many adults are vaccinated, and most people are wearing masks when around people outside their household, including children,” she said. “Both of these steps may be playing an important role in protecting our children. Nonetheless, as most of the 1.5 million children in grades K to 12 returned to in-person instruction, there is the possibility of many more exposures. And since hospitalization is a lagging indicator, we’re going to need to carefully watch the case rates among children over the upcoming weeks.”

Ferrer said the causes of school outbreaks are often preventable including inconsistent use of masks, poor distancing requirements or allowing symptomatic individuals on campus.

She said while the risk of death for youth is very low with only seven deaths reported in children since the start of the pandemic, the possibility of larger outbreaks on school sites is cause for concern.

“It’s sobering because the numbers are high and every single one of those cases needs follow-up,” she said. “They need to be interviewed, we need to identify the close contacts and that means that if there are close contacts, which in school settings there almost always are, those close contacts will in fact, have some disruption as well as many of them if they’re not vaccinated, are going to need to go ahead and quarantine themselves.”

If a COVID-19 case is found on school grounds, the patient is immediately isolated. Close contacts are then identified (as defined as individuals who have had a total of 15 minutes of exposure within six feet of the patient). Those contacts are notified and told to quarantine. Students can shorten their quarantine from 10 to eight days if they test negative on day six and do not develop symptoms.

Ferrer said the County could modify its isolation and quarantine protocols based on data gathered through Sept. 10 as that will provide a full 30 days of information with the Delta variant as the dominant strain.

“We have to move quickly to prevent the kind of transmission in schools that will create very large outbreaks, something that’s been done successfully since reopening last fall, and remain diligent on that,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of work and it happens on the part of parents, students, teachers and staff. So this is an effort that works best when everyone is really doing their part. Otherwise, it really can become a situation where we have more spread than we need to.”

Ferrer said widespread adoption of vaccines is the only way to preempt outbreaks.

According to the most recent data, officials estimate that 81% of public school district staff members have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccination.

Ferrer said unvaccinated students are eight times more likely to get sick.

“With only 57 cases among every 100,000 vaccinated teens in this age group, compared with 480 cases, among 100,000 teams of those that are unvaccinated,” she said. “You can also see that hospitalizations are likewise eightfold higher in unvaccinated children than among vaccinated children and deaths across all pediatric age groups, fortunately, remain exceedingly rare. Given how effective the vaccines are at protecting teens, our highest priority is to make vaccine access super simple for teens who are not yet vaccinated, especially given the continued high rate of transmission.”

As of August 29, 60% of county teens 12 to 15 years old had received at least one dose of the vaccine, while 48% were fully vaccinated. About 68% of teens 16 and 17 had received at least one dose, and 57% of this age group is fully vaccinated.

“The most powerful strategy we have for keeping schools open is getting these numbers within the range of 100%,” she said. “If all eligible children were vaccinated, we would dramatically reduce transmission both in school settings and in after-school sports programs and extracurricular activities.”

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...