VENICE — Parents can be forgiven if they’re scratching their heads about sending their kids back to school in a couple of weeks.
On the one hand, children ages 12 and up are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, and the Sarasota County School District says that fully vaccinated students won’t be required to quarantine from classes or sports if exposed to the coronavirus as long as they don’t have symptoms.
Vaccination clinics have been put on throughout the district all summer, and shots are available at many pharmacies and the Department of Health’s two offices in the county.
The School Board voted to make masks optional this year, as many parents argued for during the prior year, based on relatively higher resistance to the coronavirus among younger people.
But on the other hand, there has been a spike in COVID-19 cases since that vote was taken, as the Delta variant has asserted its dominance.
“The Delta is a very ‘fit’ strain of the virus,” which makes it able to outcompete the other variants, said Dr. Manuel Gordillo, Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH) medical director of Infection Prevention and Control.
The state reported more than four times as many cases last week as it did a month earlier, and the county had more than five times as many, though the numbers are still well below those at the pandemic’s peak.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to recommend masks in schools for anyone age 2 and up who isn’t fully vaccinated. The American Academy of Pediatrics went further this week, updating its guidance to recommend masks regardless of vaccination status.
Masks are part of a “layered” approach to a return to in-person learning that includes vaccination, along with “ventilation, testing, quarantining, cleaning and disinfection,” the group said in a news release.
Locally the vaccination rate among youths ages 12-15 is only about 25%, Gordillo said, and it’s only about 30% in their parents’ age group.
He said he recently changed his mind about masks, due to the surge in cases.
“Right now we’re seeing so much of this exponential growth that I would advocate everybody that goes indoors these days should probably wear a mask when they go indoors in public,” he said.
SMH has resumed in-person meetings when possible and has loosened its restrictions on visitation but continues to require masks, President and CEO David Verinder said.
The CDC’s current mask guidance predates the rise of the Delta variant and occurred before the “full picture of vaccine hesistancy” was known, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told the Washington Post Monday.
He called masks a “small inconvenience,” noting that while only about 300 children have died of COVID-19, they aren’t less susceptible to it uniformly. Some have required hospitalization, while others have become COVID-19 “long haulers,” suffering symptoms for months.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday that he will call a special session of the Legislature if the CDC attempts to impose a nationwide mask mandate.
Legislative action would be necessary because DeSantis doesn’t have the authority to control schools by executive order.
A countrywide surge is unlikely because of vaccinations, Collins said, but areas and populations that aren’t vaccinated will remain vulnerable.
“Do not assume we’re all done with this,” he said.