Sep 7, 2023 - News

How metro Phoenix schools are navigating COVID surge

Illustration of a chalkboard with a circular arrow and a coronavirus icon drawn in chalk.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Arizona schools are a month or more into the academic year and already welcoming back a familiar, unwanted guest: COVID-19.

What's happening: COVID cases recorded in Maricopa County the last two weeks of August were more than double July's tally, according to county data.

  • A new fast-spreading variant called EG.5 has resulted in case upticks here and across the U.S.
  • Unsurprisingly, the virus has found its way into classrooms, with Maricopa County reporting four school outbreaks — defined as three or more linked cases within a 14-day period — since July.

Why it matters: This is the fourth school year to begin in the COVID-era, though half of Americans believe the pandemic is over, per an August Axios-Ipsos poll.

  • Public health authorities and educators are trying to balance policies to keep kids healthy while ensuring they don't suffer the learning loss that plagued the early pandemic days.

State of play: Most Valley school districts are treating COVID the same as any other respiratory illness this year, which is in line with the county public health department's recommendation, the Arizona Republic reported.

  • The standard guidance dictates that a child's symptoms should be improving and they should be fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications before returning to school, county medical epidemiologist Nick Staab told the Republic.
  • Yes, but: Staab also noted that if hospital admissions increase substantially, the public health department may encourage masking and social distancing.

The big picture: There isn't consensus among public health experts around how schools should deal with COVID this fall, Axios' Adriel Bettelheim and Maya Goldman report.

  • "Maybe kids can still go to school with symptoms, as long as they don't have fevers or as long as they don't have severe coughing," said Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University who has long advocated for a return to pre-pandemic life.
  • Others disagreed. If your kid is feeling sick, they shouldn't go to in-person classes, said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Between the lines: The late-summer surge comes after a stretch when most Americans put the pandemic behind them. And acceptance of public health measures is often tied to perceptions of personal risk.

  • The percentage of people who wear a mask some or all of the time has dropped by half over the past six months, to 15%, according to the latest Axios-Ipsos American Health Index.
  • 69% say contracting COVID poses small or no risk to their health and well-being. And booster uptake has been low, with about 17% of the population receiving last year's updated COVID shot, per the CDC.

What's next: An new COVID vaccine, that's better tailored to the EG.5 variant, will be available later this month.

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