The school year begins Monday for students in Chapel Hill-Carborro City Schools and Orange and Chatham counties. Meanwhile, most North Carolina counties are considered at high risk for community transmission of COVID-19 by the CDC.
Although the rate of COVID infection is not as bad as this time last year, Dr. David Weber, UNC Medical Director for the Department of Infection Prevention at the university’s Medical Center, said case numbers remain high, in part because of the new BA.5 strain of COVID-19.
“That said, because there is such a high level of immunity either from natural infection or from partial vaccine immunity, we’re not seeing an increase in the hospital overall, with the hospital swamped with very sick patients,” Weber said. “Though, as I said. we still have 400 to 500 people dying every day.”
Case numbers are almost certain to be underreported, Weber said, because of increased access to home testing, where results are not reported to county or state health officials.
During the school year, Orange County Schools and CHCCS say they will track and report weekly positive tests for COVID on their respective websites.
Weber said the key to prevention continues to be vaccinations and masking, though schools can also help protect students, staff and teachers by improving classroom ventilation. It recommends that parents fully vaccinate their children before sending them to school.
“[The vaccine] it has excellent protection against serious illness or death and good protection against BA5 and infection as well.”
The FDA authorized use of the vaccine in children up to 6 months of age in July, but vaccination rates among school-aged children remain low. According to state health department data, only 27 percent of 5- to 11-year-olds in North Carolina have received at least one dose of the vaccine. 48 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds have received a dose of the vaccine.
Among the staff, the vaccination rate is much higher. CHCCS school officials report that 97 percent of its employees are fully vaccinated.
For those who get sick with COVID, the CDC recommends that people stay home for at least 5 days. However. there is disagreement about the exact number of days for quarantine. A recent study described in the scientific journal Nature suggests that people can be infectious beyond a handful of days, and some infectious disease experts are advising those who test positive for COVID to isolate themselves until they test negative using a rapid at-home antigen test.
For people of all ages with compromised immune systems, Weber suggests wearing masks when indoors or around other people.
“If the child is particularly vulnerable, not many children compared to adults have cancer, but some do, then masking is still the best protection for those very vulnerable children and also teachers and other workers in the school who may have vulnerable conditions,” he said. .
Meanwhile, a new vaccine booster that offers increased protection against the Omicron variant is close, Weber said, and could be expected sometime in late September.
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