Payson schools remain a COVID hot spot, as the fierce national debate about how to contain the pandemic turns to vaccine mandates.
Payson schools had accumulated a total of 124 positive cases and 806 close contacts as of last Thursday, with numbers growing sharply by the day. The district has about 2,300 students and about 300 employees.
President Joe Biden Thursday announced federal vaccine mandates that will cover about two-thirds of the U.S. workforce, including most teachers. He also urged schools to require vaccinations for students older than 16.
Nine states have already mandated vaccines in schools and for school staff — some for those over 12, some for those over 16. That includes the Los Angeles School District, one of the largest in the nation.
However, the Arizona Legislature this year barred either mask mandates or vaccine mandates in schools.
Cases in Payson schools have soared in recent weeks. Gila County has one of the highest per-capita death rates in the country since the start of the pandemic. Although the rate of increase throughout the county has slowed, new cases have accelerated in the school district.
Rim Country Middle School has suffered the biggest blow — with 61 student and five staff cases, as of Friday. Two other students have COVID-like symptoms. A total of 726 students — but no faculty members — are listed as close contacts. That total exceeds the enrollment at the school, but the list of close contacts include students who have been double counted because they came into contact with more than one positive case.
Cases in the high school have also begun to build — with 32 positive cases among students and one among faculty — generating 52 close contacts.
Numerous studies have shown that middle schools and high schools produce far more clusters than elementary schools, mainly because students rotate through six classes per day — creating the potential for 180 close contacts daily for each student. By contrast, elementary school students remain in a single class with 20 or 30 students and schools can easily manage the number of close contacts by controlling the way different classes mix at lunch and recess.
Payson’s experience this semester bears out the research — with just 19 student cases and two faculty cases at Payson Elementary and Julia Randall Elementary. Those 21 positive cases generated just 30 close contacts — even allowing for double counting.
Payson Superintendent Linda Gibson said, “There has been an increase at the high school level and a calming at the middle school level. We’re coping on a day-to-day basis” but are not considering any additional changes in policy.
The school board recently accepted the advice of the county health department and now requires anyone with symptoms of a positive test to quarantine for 10 days. Close contacts who have not been vaccinated or recovered from a previous infection must also quarantine. The district does not require masks in classrooms, in compliance with the new state law.
The Biden administration’s embrace of vaccine mandates for federal workers, health care facilities receiving money from Medicare and Medicaid and companies with more than 100 employees puts the state into direct conflict with federal rules and regulations. If people don’t want to get vaccinated at large businesses, they could instead get a test each week to show they’re not infected. It’s unclear who would pay for this test — health plans, employers or employees. Federal workers would have 75 days to get vaccinated or face unspecified consequences.
Moreover, the federal government is now urging schools to require students older than 16 to get vaccinated, now that the vaccines have full, non-emergency approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration. The FDA is expected to issue full approval for use of the vaccine in ages 12 to 16 in the coming weeks and for children younger than 12 before the end of the year.
Payson does not require school employees to get vaccinated and estimates that more than 80% are protected. The nation’s major teachers union has come out to support mandatory vaccinations, with exceptions for some conditions.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has said the state will “push back” against the new federal vaccine requirements. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich — who is running for governor — has suggested the state will sue to block the federal vaccine mandates. Both have harshly criticized the new policies as federal overreach and an infringement of individual rights.
Rep. Paul Gosar, who represents Rim Country in Congress, also blasted vaccine mandates. “There is no law authorized by Congress and no constitutional provision that conveys the power to the presidency to force any citizen to undergo a medical procedure against their will. Mr. Biden’s decision mandating that Americans take a COVID-19 vaccine is illegal, unconstitutional and a deprivation of individual liberty. This is radial government overreach.”
Similar battles erupted over previous vaccine mandates, including the campaigns that wiped out smallpox and nearly exterminated polio in the U.S. Smallpox killed 300 million people between 1900 and 1977, when the vaccine eradicated it. Before the development of the first vaccine, smallpox accounted for about 8% of all deaths annually.
Studies have shown that the three approved COVID vaccines are roughly 95% effective against most COVID strains and perhaps 80% to 85% effective against the Delta strain. Even when someone suffers a breakthrough infection, those who have been vaccinated are less likely to suffer serious illness or die. It’s unclear from the existing studies whether recovery from an infection without a vaccine offers comparable protection, especially when it comes to the Delta variant. Some small-scale studies suggest recovery from infection by a previous strain offers about 34% infection from a new infection by the Delta variant — roughly the same level of protection of a single dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
Health officials are alarmed at a big increase in cases in schools and hospitalization of children with serious illness due to the spread of the Delta variant.
Fortunately, unvaccinated children are still far less likely to get seriously ill compared to unvaccinated adults — even in the face of the much faster spread of the Delta variant. However, studies have suggested schools are increasingly the source of clusters of new cases that then spread to unvaccinated adults — both on campus and off.
One study found that unvaccinated and unmasked middle school students have a 40% chance of getting infected at school over time, according to researchers from Georgia Tech and North Carolina State University.
Hospitalization rates among children and teens rose fivefold between late June and mid-August as the Delta variant pushed aside earlier strains across the country. Hospitalization rates were 10 times higher among unvaccinated children, according to the report from the Centers for Disease Control. Some 30,000 children with COVID were hospitalized in August. Despite the big increase, those under 18 with the virus have only a fraction of the hospitalization rate of adults.
States like Arizona with low vaccination rates have seen the biggest increase in new cases and deaths among both children and adults, according to national tracking data.
The Delta variant prompted the CDC to change its recommendations for schools, with support for mask mandates indoors when students cannot socially distance. The recommendations were based in part on studies showing that universal masking in schools reduced infection rates by 800%. The combination of masking, natural ventilation of classrooms and fine filters on air conditioning and heating units reduced transmission by 3,000%. However, the new Arizona law bars school mask mandates.
A new poll last week showed that 59% of Arizona’s likely voters oppose the ban on school mask mandates, while 38% support the ban. The poll included 400 respondents, with a margin of error plus or minus 5%. The Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Public Health Association paid for the poll. The ASBA is challenging the state’s mask mandate ban for schools in court. Voters supported vaccine mandates by a smaller margin. The respondents were 42% Republican, 34% Democratic, 8% independents and 16% undeclared — mirroring the make up of the state’s most likely voters.
Democrats and Republicans divided sharply. Some 92% of Democrats but only 26% of Republicans supported mask mandates in schools. Independents fell somewhere in between, although a majority supported mask mandates.
Some 72% of those surveyed said they have been vaccinated, but that included 52% of Republicans and 93% of Democrats.
“For the Arizona School Boards Association, the heart of the mask issue is local control,” said Ann O’Brien, president of ASBA’s board of directors and a Deer Valley Unified School District Governing Board member. “We believe that our member districts and their locally elected school board should be able to decide what’s best for their students and staff. In general, voters support masks, but most importantly, they also support allowing our local school districts to have a choice on whether or not they would like to implement a mask mandate.”
The poll showed 62% opposed Ducey’s plan to use $163 million in federal COVID relief money to reward schools that don’t require masks. The governor had set aside a portion of the federal pandemic relief money intended for schools. The grant program required the state to pass the money along to low-income school districts struggling with the costs of the pandemic and much greater documented learning losses among students. Those low-income districts — including most rural schools, including Payson — have already received the maximum allotment through the program. So the money the governor is withholding based on mask mandates can only go to high-income school districts. Payson’s not eligible, noted Gibson.
Some 62% of the voters polled said they disagree with the order that offered money to districts that do not adopt mask mandates.
About 51% also opposed the governor’s order prohibiting local government from requiring proof of vaccination from their employees.
“Vaccines are effective against the Delta variant, but transmission risk remains elevated among unvaccinated persons — particularly in schools,” said Will Humble, head of the Arizona Public Health Association. “Once again, the public understands this and a majority think that a private business or local public entity should be able to require proof of vaccination to help stop the spread of COVID-19.”