Coronavirus infections linked to pre-K-12 schools increased in the first month of class, but health and education officials remain confident Minnesota can weather the latest pandemic wave with more mask wear and testing and fewer building closures and quarantines.
The Minnesota Department of Health on Thursday reported 1,973 infections in pre-K-12 buildings during the week ending September 25 and 2,525 during the previous week – the highest totals since the start of the pandemic. The state also reported 405 outbreaks in which five or more students or staff were in the same school building while contagious over a two-week period. This is an increase from 232 last week.
Governor Tim Walz visited Carver Elementary School in Maplewood on Wednesday to highlight its testing and other strategies to reduce the viral spread. The school, along with others in North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale District 622, requires masks and installs air purifiers in classrooms. It also uses bi-weekly surveillance tests on staff members to detect any unknown infections and offers quick take-home tests for students with suspicious symptoms and members of their household.
Keeping schools open and children safe “are not mutually exclusive,” Walz said. ” They [both] can be done. We have learned a lot over the past 18 months. “
While children are at lower risk of severe COVID-19, Walz said coronavirus infections have contributed to an “unacceptable” overcrowding of hospitals that has left Minnesota with two pediatric intensive care unit beds open at some point last week. Heads of state are also concerned that low-risk children could pass the virus to those at higher risk and increase Minnesota’s toll beyond the current 732,001 coronavirus infections and 8,275 deaths.
The total includes 2,674 infections and 32 deaths reported Thursday in Minnesota, which a month ago had one of the lowest infection rates in the country, but now has one of the highest then as other states emerge from severe waves of COVID-19 fueled by a rapid-spread delta variant.
Despite the surge in pre-K-12 infections, schools have not been so quick to close buildings or switch to full or hybrid distance learning models. Edison High School in Minneapolis and Vaughan-Steffensrud Elementary School in Chisholm resumed in-person classes this week after brief shutdowns in response to viral activity. Quarantines of college teams canceling seasons or games haven’t happened as much either.
Access to the COVID-19 vaccine is a key reason, said Christine Tucci Osorio, District 622 Superintendent. “Athletes take this very seriously because they want to be able to continue playing. When students are exposed, if they’ve been vaccinated before, they’re not out of sight now because they’re… protected. “
First-dose COVID-19 vaccination rate in Minnesotans 12 and older is 72.6%, state data shows, but remains below 60% in the 12 to 17 age group years old eligible for Pfizer vaccine.
Walz said he expects eligibility to drop to 5 years by November. Pfizer on Thursday applied for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to provide a vaccine to this younger age group.
Walz praised schools such as Carver and predicted that widespread use of COVID-19 testing will reduce quarantines and school closures.
“This building did it,” he said. “These kids are learning there and they’re about as safe as we can get them. In about three weeks, we can make them a lot safer when we can get them vaccinated. “
Walz no longer has the power, under an emergency ordinance, to establish COVID-19 response policies in schools, so districts have made their own plans.
The variation shows even among the 60 largest districts in Minnesota. Thirty-seven of them have universal indoor mask wearing requirements, while 13 do not. Another 10 limited their mask requirements to lower grades or buildings with high infection rates.
Centennial public schools require masks for at least 10 days in schools with COVID positivity or illness rates of 5%, for example, while the District of Faribault requires them in all schools until the infection rate of the local community falls below the substantial risk level.
Outbreaks have appeared in districts regardless of mitigation levels, in part because the threshold of five infections is low for schools with hundreds or thousands of students. Three outbreaks were reported in District 622 despite its lauded efforts.
More outbreaks could be due to more aggressive testing, but it’s an interesting tradeoff for early identification of infections before they spread widely, said Kelly Ayd, health services supervisor for District 622. “The more we know, the better we can fight the virus. “
The district is testing teachers and staff for COVID-19 regardless of symptoms using molecular diagnostic saliva tests, which take longer to produce results but are more effective at detecting infections in children. people without symptoms. It then uses the state-provided BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests to quickly identify if sick children are infected with the coronavirus.
Walz urged more districts to take advantage of free state testing supplies, especially the rapid antigen test which has a slightly higher error rate but can provide instant information so that students and their close contacts don’t do not wait.
“It’s peace of mind,” he said. “What we found is the psychology of being able to test in your house and get results almost instantly [means] more people will. “
More than 800 of 2,500 school buildings have requested free test supplies from the state, and two-thirds of school districts and charter schools in Minnesota have requested grants to cover the costs of the tests.
Rochester Public Schools will be among the first in Minnesota later this month to try a “test-to-stay” approach to reducing quarantines for unvaccinated students in close contact with infected classmates. Close contacts in some schools may take rapid tests each morning at home and return to class if the results are negative. Otherwise, they have to quarantine themselves.
The key as districts pursue unique testing strategies is for leaders to be clear on goals with students and parents – who have become wary and reluctant to test over the past year as it has resulted in so many quarantines and quarantines. Class disruptions, said Dr. Ethan Berke, Audience-in-Chief. health manager for UnitedHealth Group, which evaluated testing programs last year in Edina and Washington DC
“Those who are successful,” he said, “are very clear about the why”.
Editor-in-chief Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744