COVID cases continue to surge in Arizona schools.
The 90-student, K-8 Tonto Basin School District, closed last week after an infected staff member prompted most students and staff to quarantine as close contacts.
In Payson schools, the number of new cases among students jumped from four on Oct. 26 to 12 on Nov. 2 and 10 on Nov. 3. This generated 14 new close contacts on 11/2 and 37 close contacts on 11/3.
Gila County remains a COVID hot spot, with an infection rate of 55 per 100,000 – compared to a statewide average of 37 and a national rate of 22 per 100,000, as a daily average in the past two weeks. The number of infections in Gila County has increased 14% and hospitalizations have increased 21% in the past two weeks.
Gila County’s doing better than some neighboring counties – including Navajo County with an infection rate of 70 per 100,000 – a 36% increase. Greenlee County suffered a 49% increase to 81 per 100,000.
Infection rates often mirror vaccination rates, both locally and nationally. Vaccinated people get infected at a dramatically lower rate than the unvaccinated. Even when people who have gotten their shots get infected, they’re far less likely to get seriously ill.
Only about 45% of Gila County residents are currently vaccinated, with rates critically low among those younger than 20 – roughly 10%.
In Gila County, breakthrough infections among the vaccinated account for about 18% of new cases — but almost none of the hospitalizations or deaths.
Tonto Basin Superintendent of Schools Chad Greer said he relied on recommendations of the Gila County Health Department in shutting down the school system from Tuesday to Friday.
The staff member was infected the previous week and tested positive on Monday of last week. Greer said it’s the first known positive case on campus this year.
He said he had no idea what percentage of the teachers and staff are vaccinated. Other states have required school faculty to get vaccinated, but the Arizona legislature barred vaccine mandates in schools. The state supreme court has overturned that law, but few Arizona districts have mandated vaccinations for staff.
The federal Food and Drug Administration last week approved vaccinations for children aged 5-12, concluding the Pfizer vaccine provides 91% protection against symptomatic infection. In the clinical trials, only about 2% of children had any adverse reaction to the half-dose shot, which was limited to a fleeting sore arm and sometimes headache or fever in those who had a reaction at all. The trial in several thousand children reported no serious side effects. The federal Centers for Disease Control recommends the shot for almost all children, unless they’ve had an allergic reaction to some previous vaccine or certain very rare medical conditions. Health experts say the vaccine has proven very safe and extremely effective in all age groups, but say they will need to continue to watch for possible rare, long-term reactions in children. In any case, they’re now confident that the side effects of the virus are far greater than the side effects of the vaccine – even for children.
Tonto Basin keeps students mostly spaced six feet apart in the classroom, has placed Plexiglas barriers between desks and has implemented enhanced cleaning procedures. However, the district doesn’t require students or staff to wear masks and doesn’t advocate for vaccinations – either for students or staff.
Numerous studies have shown that vaccines provide the best protection, followed by near-universal mask wearing indoors. Robust circulation in classrooms – including open windows and air filters – has also been shown to remove a large share of floating virus from the room. However, studies have so far shown that social distancing, enhanced cleaning procedures and Plexiglas barriers have so far demonstrated little protection.
Greer said he plans to talk to the school board about whether or not to impose additional protective measures.
He said he personally favors leaving the vaccination decision up to parents. “Each person has their own personal and private view on how they feel about the vaccine. Some teachers wear masks and some children will sometimes put one on.”
Greer said no parents have so far objected to the closure to him.
However, he said he has no plans to convince parents to get their children vaccinated to avoid further such disruptions. The Gila County Health Department recommends students and staff who have a close contact with someone who tests positive should quarantine for 10 days – but only if they haven’t been vaccinated.
“I think vaccinations should be a personal choice,” said Greer. “I want to make sure people feel comfortable with it. Things are fluid. Things could change. Right now I think it’s a personal choice and people should have authority over their children.”
Payson schools have also not discussed returning to a mask mandate considering the state supreme court decision. The school board has also not required staff to get vaccinated or discussed any effort to encourage vaccination of students.
The school board last week returned to the original version of several policies affected by the state laws overturned by the supreme court. Those new laws were stuffed into a budget bill at the last minute, which the supreme court ruled violated a constitutional requirement that new laws must deal with a single subject.
Last year, clusters of cases at the Payson middle school and high school forced several school shutdowns and a return to distance learning. The shutdowns stemmed mostly from the need for teachers to quarantine as close contacts, because the district couldn’t find enough substitutes to keep school open. Some 80% of staff members are now vaccinated, which means they don’t have to quarantine even when they’re close contacts. So, even though the district has far more positive cases among students this semester, schools have remained open due to the high vaccination rate among staff.
Nonetheless, the number of new positive cases has grown over time. The district’s now reporting new cases and close contacts on a daily basis, rather than cumulative totals from the start of the year. This has made it easier to track the steady increase in new cases in the past two weeks.
Epidemiologists say children face a far lower risk of serious illness than adults. However, numerous studies have shown that schools can generate clusters of cases that can keep spawning fresh surges of illness in the community. This can prove especially dangerous in poorly vaccinated communities like Payson.
Doctors worry that the continued incubation of fresh clusters on campus will prove especially dangerous during the holidays, when children will mingle with older relatives who still face a risk of serious illness and death. Getting fully vaccinated dramatically reduces the risk, but doesn’t eliminate it for the elderly and people with other high-risk health conditions.