Primary school COVID outbreak shows why layers of safety precautions are needed: NPR

A COVID outbreak at an elementary school in California has highlighted just how fearsome an enemy delta is in classrooms. This is why experts say it is essential for schools to deploy multiple strategies to reduce cases.


Many children who return to school are still too young to be immunized, so parents are wondering what schools should do to minimize the risk to their children. NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy has a few answers.

Hey Maria.


SHAPIRO: We know the Delta variant is very contagious. What does this mean in the context of a classroom where children may not be immunized?

GODOY: Well, it can spread a lot easier, and we’ve got concrete evidence of that. A good example is a study released recently by the CDC that looked at an outbreak in late May at an elementary school in California. On the surface, it seemed like the school was doing a lot of things right. They were masquerading. They were moving away from the desks. And yet, a teacher spread the virus to half the class. Now this teacher was not vaccinated and had gone to work with very mild allergy-like symptoms. At brief times of the day, the teacher removed his mask to read aloud to the class.

SHAPIRO: And that’s how the disease spread to the children?

GODOY: Well, you know the professor took a coronavirus test and he came back positive. And yes, soon after, half of the class tested positive as well. And it wasn’t just kids in that classroom. The epidemic has spread to other classrooms, to siblings of students and even to fully immunized parents. In fact, in total there were 27 people infected.

SHAPIRO: So that seems to be two key factors here: The teacher took off the mask and wasn’t vaccinated either.

GODOY: Right. Law. And these two factors are essential. In fact, experts say that with Delta there is little room for error when it comes to these kinds of protections. I spoke to Tracy Lam-Hine. The Marin County epidemiologist led the study. He said all the children were masked in this class and most of the teacher was masked too.

TRACY LAM-HINE: For me, the takeaway from this story is that even brief, brief interruptions, you know, taking off a mask can open up an opportunity for delta to escape.

GODOY: And remember: for children under 12, they’re too young to be vaccinated, which makes masking one of the most important protections they have.

SHAPIRO: But there was also the vaccination element here. How could it have been different if the teacher had been vaccinated?

GODOY: You know, that’s a good question. Public health officials say it is essential that anyone who spends time indoors with children is vaccinated. And that includes children 12 and older who are now eligible for the vaccine. It creates a kind of protective cocoon around these unvaccinated children. Jason Newland is a pediatric infectious disease physician at Washington University in St. Louis. He says there is data that the more adults are vaccinated, the lower the rate of infections in children.

JASON NEWLAND: Israel has some really interesting data, doesn’t it? When they saw that their adults’ vaccination rates were really, really high, they actually lowered their rates in children, which I think goes to show – doesn’t it? – the cocooning thing works.

SHAPIRO: So masking and vaccination are two important points. What can schools do to protect children?

GODOY: Good ventilation – experts say this is paramount because we know this fire is mainly spread through the air. Viral particles can build up inside and linger, sometimes for hours. Jose-Luis Jimenez of the University of Colorado at Boulder studies aerosols. He says he thinks of virus particles like cigarette smoke in a room. It may start to float around the person who is smoking.

JOSE-LUIS JIMENEZ: But after half an hour, after 10 minutes, the whole room is filled with smoke.

GODOY: And what do you do when a room is filled with smoke? You open windows and doors. And so the same applies here. You also want to use high quality air purifiers, those that use a HEPA filter. And finally, move activities outside as much as possible, especially lunch when the kids are unmasked. Ultimately, these strategies are not perfect on their own, but the more protections you can apply in schools, the better the chances of stopping the spread of the virus.

SHAPIRO: She’s NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy.

Thanks, Marie.

GODOY: My pleasure.


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