Health officials hope schools will maintain CDC guidelines even though the governor has rescinded the statewide school mask mandate order.
Public health officials worry unvaccinated students can still spur new cases, especially with the rise of some new strains of the virus that might prove more dangerous to children than the current, dominant strains.
However, Payson schools have already made the wearing of masks on campus optional, according to PUSD Superintendent Linda Gibson.
Gibson said the district still “supports” students, faculty or staff who want to wear masks, however, and will continue to make masks available on campus.
“The only thing changing is there is no longer a mandated requirement,” she said in an email.
Gov. Ducey lifted the previous statewide mandate that school districts require students and staff to wear masks on campus. However, his order indicated that school boards can still require people to wear masks if they choose. Earlier, the governor ordered all schools to resume in-person classes.
The federal Centers for Disease Control has urged schools to require use of masks on campus, as well as establishment of screening tests, to quickly detect new cases of COVID on campus.
Gila County Health officials say they hope to work with districts to make screening tests quickly and easily available.
Testing for COVID in schools
Already schools in other states have set up surveillance testing, said Josh Beck, the lead for the Gila County Health and Emergency Management Department’s response to the pandemic.
“A couple of states are doing this, but (Arizona is) not on board,” he said.
Arizona received $219 million from the recent stimulus package to set up contact tracing and testing in schools. The county, with state help, wants to help schools set up a system that relies on free screening tests that provide results in about 15 minutes to help prevent new clusters of cases from developing on campus.
This federal money has prompted the state to move toward a classroom testing program.
“They basically have kits for every classroom in the school,” said Beck.
Michael O’Driscoll, director of the county health department, admitted Arizona health officers have not yet solidified a school testing plan, but “they really want to get going quickly (and) I wouldn’t be surprised if this doesn’t happen quickly.”
The kits include the Abbott Binax Now antigen test, which quickly detects virus proteins in the system that indicate an active infection. The rapid test has about a 2% false positive rate and it misses 7% of active infections but offers a quick and effective screening test, since it generates results in about 15 minutes.
If a student or staff member tests positive on the rapid test, they can take a second sample to send to the county for a more accurate PCR test to double check. The state has provided Gila County with an Abbott machine to process that test, which also requires a swab up the nose. The PCR test is the most accurate test and can also show if an infection happened up to three months ago.
“The Abbott machine gives a result from the PCR test swab in 45 minutes to an hour,” said Beck.
He said the combination of the quick antigen test and the backup PCR test should prove much more useful as a quick screening system than the PCR-only tests used in some other states.
“Let’s say they take a test on Wednesday and get results on Friday,” said Beck. “If they tested positive on Wednesday, they could have been spreading virus on Monday — and now they’ve been in school for five days.”
The fast-acting test allows the student or staff member to immediately quarantine during the wait for the confirmation of the PCR test.
One thing is clear, Beck and O’Driscoll understand the state will ask districts to offer the voluntary test to students and staff once a week.
Already Beck has seen pushback from both northern and southern Gila County schools, especially since his wife works as a teacher.
“When I talk to our schools they say, ‘Our teachers … they already have a lot on their plate, can we let someone with medical experience do this testing?’” he said.
But Beck realizes “you can’t make kids take the test.”
Vaccines could end testingIt all comes down to vaccination rates, which have plummeted in recent weeks — especially for those between the ages of 20 and 40.
But that’s the age of the parents of the children in schools. Studies suggest usually when kids test positive for COVID, they were infected off campus.
Beck worries that parents who aren’t willing to get vaccinated themselves may not want to get their kids vaccinated — once the federal government approves a safe and effective vaccine for both teens and younger children. Beck believes that could be available as early as July.
Right now, only about a third of the county population is fully vaccinated.
Vaccinating 80% of Gila County adults would lessen the need for testing programs in schools and elsewhere. But as vaccination rates across the country plummet in that 20 to 40 age group, health experts worry the U.S. will not reach herd immunity until far more people have been infected — and either recovered or died.
Still, Beck is proud of the county’s residents — especially in the highest risk groups. Among those 65 and older, 79% have gotten at least one shot.
“If they just hang with each other, we’re doing great,” said Beck. In fact, there are no COVID patients in county hospitals at this time.
But here’s the biggest danger.
So far, about 61% of adults in the county have gotten one shot — and about 35% are fully vaccinated. However, kids make up 20% of the population — and so far, there’s no approved vaccine for kids.
If less than half of the total population gets the shot, the virus will continue to evolve and spread in that group. This virus has showed an ability to evolve big changes quickly. Some variants now spreading rapidly are 70% more contagious and perhaps 50% more likely to cause serious illness. So far, the approved vaccines seem to work pretty well on the new variants. However, another new strain could develop a resistance to the vaccine as it circulates among children and unvaccinated adults. This could sweep away the hard-won progress of the past year and once again pose a grave threat to high-risk groups, even if they’ve gotten vaccinated.
“It almost makes you think, (the vaccinated people who are 65 and older) are the ones to convince the younger generation,” said Beck.