Dr. Indu Gupta, MD, MPH
Onondaga County Health Commissioner
Fall is knocking at our doorsteps and kids are ready to go back to school. I am sure you and your kids are very excited. At the same time, are concerned because of the increasing number of cases in our community and throughout the United States and the world. The Delta variant has taken hold of the communities and destroying the gains of the past.
The Delta variant is a highly contagious new variant of the same virus which causes COVID-19 disease. It is more contagious than the original virus strain. That means, in 2020, when someone was positive, that person could infect 3 people. But now, a person infected with the new Delta variant can infect 6-9 people making it 2-3 times more infectious than the original SARS COV-2 virus. Additionally, it causes more severe disease and it is creating havoc among children.
The good news is the current vaccines are effective against this Delta variant. However, many of the eligible adults and eligible children of 12 years and older have yet not taken steps to receive even the first dose of the vaccine in our community…even though they are widely available in our community. As of now, about 60% of our county population has been fully vaccinated falling short of the desired goal. Fully vaccinated means two doses of Pfizer or Moderna or a single dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
2020 was a very difficult year for everyone. Schools had to be cancelled and kids had to learn virtually- which affected not only their academic growth but also physical and mental health. We have come a long way since then and with many available tools in our toolbox. 0ur joint goal is to have every child come to school for in-person learning. With the rise in the cases in our community, I am concerned, and I wanted to talk to you regarding steps you can take to keep your children healthy while in school and help school administration achieve a safe and healthy environment for everyone. Here are some thoughts:
- First and foremost, if you or your children are not vaccinated- please take steps to get the vaccine as soon as possible. Talk to your doctor. Vaccines are safe, very effective, do not change the body, and prepares it to fight against the virus if it comes close to us. Get the facts from CDC and our health department website.
- Number two is wearing a mask. In my recent guidance for reopening of the schools in the fall, I strongly recommended to the school districts to have universal masking for everyone irrespective of vaccination status. The reason for universal masking is that many people who are eligible are not yet vaccinated, providing the opportunity for the virus to spread. If that happens, with isolation and quarantine, school learning will be significantly impacted. You can see this unfolding in many southern states where there are very low vaccination rates and no masking—new cases were diagnosed in the schools resulting in many children in isolation and quarantine, with some schools having to go to virtual learning again as soon as they opened. I can safely presume that you are looking to avoid that same scenario in Onondaga County, right? If the answer is yes, I need your help in stopping the spread of the virus in our schools so schools can remain open and kids can grow academically, physically, and emotionally in a safe, healthy, and happy environment. As we saw recently in Massachusetts, without masks many vaccinated people got infected. However, there were no serious health consequences among them including no deaths. The bottom line is that vaccines protected them, but masks would have stopped the transmission of the virus. This was the reason CDC changed its recommendations, and so did we, for universal masking while indoors.
- The third step to keep schools open is to do ongoing random screening testing of staff and kids alike in the schools. Why? To give you the current state of our County—on June 27 we had 1 case and we thought it was amazing; however, our cases have increased significantly to 100 or so every day. That means Onondaga County is in the high transmission zone as calculated by the number of cases per day based on our population. That does not mean we should feel helpless. Testing is an important tool of prevention strategies where we can do testing in the schools and identify those who are asymptomatic infections. We can then isolate positive cases and quarantine those exposed. This will help reduce the chance of the spread of infection in the classroom and in different buildings of the schools. And we can keep schools open. To achieve this, I need your help because children under 18 years of age need consent from the parent. Please consider signing a universal consent for testing for the entire academic year. Your school will send you more information about these.
In closing, I can say that this SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID 19 is very smart, and is outsmarting us by changing itself to fool us, and is becoming stronger and stronger. The future is in everyone’s hands; with available tools. We are in a much better place than we were last year when testing was scattered, and there were no vaccines. Masks, physical distancing, and handwashing saved lives and continued to do so. We have more tools in our tool kit NOW than ever before, and WE SHOULD NOT abandon those tools which helped reduce the number of cases until vaccines became available. Wearing a mask in indoor public settings, physical distancing, hand washing, symptom checks, testing, and vaccination are the best preventive tools we have to reduce the spread of infection in the schools and community alike. We should learn from other states where new cases among unvaccinated and unmasked individuals have now overwhelmed the hospital systems near collapse. On a lighter note, the benefit of vaccination is that if you are vaccinated and exposed, as long as you have no symptoms you will not be quarantined!
Onondaga County Health Department’s guidance is built on CDC and NYSED, which is the regulatory agency for the schools. The school superintendents will make the final policy decisions for the reopening. I will continue to work with them throughout the process and will provide recommendations to specific situations as they arise.
We have come a long way. I am asking for your help and support again to stop the spread of this virus in our community. I am hopeful because all of you have been a great partner since the 16th of March, 2020 when our first case was diagnosed. And I believe you will continue to do so now, I am counting on you!
You may also watch this as a video message:
- NYS: COVID -19Vaccine Tracker: https://covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov/covid-19-vaccine-tracker
- CDC: Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 school: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/k-12-guidance.html
- NYSED: Health and Safety Guide for the 2021-22 School Year: http://www.nysed.gov/common/nysed/files/programs/back-school/nysed-health-and-safety-guide-for-the-2021-2022-school-year.pdf
- OCHD: Onondaga County Health Department: Guidance for K-12 Reopening: http://www.ongov.net/health/documents/K-12Guidance2021-22.pdf
- MMWR: Outbreak of SARS CoV-2 Infection, Including COVID-19 Breakthrough Infections associated with large gatherings: Barnstable County, Massachusetts: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7031e2.htm
- Delta Variants: What we know about the science : CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/delta-variant.html