TASB Risk Management Fund

Taking the Pandemic’s Pulse

May 26, 2021 David Wylie

Teacher cleaning student desks while wearing mask and disposable gloves

If you’ve sensed a shift in the COVID-19 climate, you’re not alone. Cases in the U.S. are falling. Kids are coming back to campus. We’re dropping our masks and eating out more—a lot more. Some media outlets have even referred to the pandemic in past tense.

So, where do we stand 14 months after an adversary we can’t see flipped our lives upside down? And what do recent developments mean for educators, students, and the fall semester?

A tale of two pandemics

Weekly deaths in the U.S. recently hit a 14-month low. New cases followed suit, falling 20 percent and marking the fifth consecutive week of declining cases. Countries such as Britain, Australia, and New Zealand are also trending in the right direction. Headlines are drastically different in other parts of the world.

Take India, for example.

Fewer than 1 percent of the nation’s 1.4 billion citizens are vaccinated. Not coincidentally, India is recording the highest case counts and fatalities in the world. While other regions feel the pandemic cloud lifting, Indian health officials are calling for a complete lockdown.

Reaching herd immunity unlikely in the U.S., experts now believe

More than half of adults in the United States have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. But daily vaccination rates are slipping, and new virus variants are spreading. Public health officials now believe the country might never achieve herd immunity.

Instead, the virus will likely become a manageable threat that circulates for years to come. Hospitalizations and deaths will still occur, but in much smaller numbers.

Experts add that our ability to co-exist with COVID-19 hinges on more people getting vaccinated.

COVID-19 case counts grow among children

Children are an exception to the steadily improving pandemic outlook in the U.S. One year ago, they represented 3 percent of COVID-19 cases. As of late April, that number had jumped to 22 percent, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Dr. Sean O'Leary, vice chair of the AAP Committee on Infectious Diseases, isn’t surprised.

“As older portions of the population get vaccinated and we're still seeing circulation, it just stands to reason that the kids who are not eligible for vaccination yet are going to make up a larger share of that pie,” O’Leary told National Public Radio.

Science supports O’Leary’s stance:

  • The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines proved 94 percent effective against COVID-19 hospitalization among fully vaccinated adults and 64 percent effective among partially vaccinated adults 65 and older.
  • In Italy, infections among adults fell 80 percent after just one vaccine dose.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the three vaccines authorized for emergency use in the U.S. protect against most current variants.
  • Pfizer found its vaccine 100 percent effective in children between 12 and 15 years old.

Fund members host student vaccine clinics

On the heels of Pfizer’s encouraging clinical trials, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved the vaccine for anyone who is at least 12 years old.

Spring Branch ISD is among the Fund members hosting student vaccination clinics.

“The vaccine has proven really successful, we’ve been reading and hearing about that across the nation, and our families are asking for it,” Spring Branch ISD Superintendent Jennifer Blaine told the Houston Chronicle.

Fort Worth ISD parent Mary Spradlin accompanied her son, an Arlington Heights High School freshman, to the district’s vaccine clinic.

"I am just really hopeful this means next school year will be really normal,” said Spradlin in an interview with  NBC 5. "We had no idea how good we had it, getting to go to school every day, be with all the people in the classroom. We’re excited to be getting back to that."

Case study plays out in Texas district

Scientists will evaluate the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in society generally and schools specifically for years to come. In the meantime, consider this real case study from a district right here in Texas.

TASB recently investigated a COVID-19 outbreak in a special education classroom. We found that 10 employees worked in or around the classroom. None of the fully vaccinated employees tested positive for COVID-19. Conversely, five employees who were not fully vaccinated tested positive. Four were unvaccinated. The fifth employee had one dose and was waiting for the second.     

This isn’t an isolated story. One New Mexico school district saw cases fall 41 percent in one week. State officials attribute the drop largely to the pace of vaccinations among teachers and students old enough to get a shot.

Clearing up new mask guidance

The CDC recently said fully vaccinated people can go without masks indoors and outdoors. It’s perhaps the strongest signal to date that the worst of the pandemic could be behind us. But there are caveats:

  • Unvaccinated people should still wear masks.
  • The CDC guidelines don’t apply to airplanes, buses, trains, and other public transportation, to health-care settings, or where state or local restrictions still require them.

What’s next?

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott announced schools can’t require masks as of June 5. Some districts have already dropped masks from their prevention strategies.

TASB Medical Director Dr. Brian Buck says the governor’s mandate elevates the importance of a two-pronged approach in the upcoming school year.

“Schools should continue focusing on screening for illness. Anyone who has symptoms should be promptly tested and isolated if necessary. To prevent the spread of illness, the emphasis should be responding promptly,” said Buck.

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Tagged: coronavirus, COVID-19