Report: Vaccinating school staff less impact on COVID outbreaks than countermeasures

Feb 25, 2021, 8:44 AM

schools, washington, science, child care, masking, mask mandate...

A first grade student at the Green Mountain School waits to leave class at the end of the day on Feb. 18, 2021, in Woodland, Washington. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

(Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

The Washington State Department of Health and the Institute for Disease Modeling released a new report on Wednesday, the fourth in a series that explores how to minimize COVID-19 cases in schools and what can be done to mitigate the spread of the virus.

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Among a number of key findings, the IDM says the rate that the virus is introduced into the classroom is proportional to the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community.

Additionally, because students are likely the main source of COVID introductions on campus, vaccinating all staff would not be a magic bullet to prevent the virus from entering schools.

“Vaccinating staff can also reduce the size of typical outbreaks, but the impact is less than other countermeasures,” the report states.

Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 does offer a high level of protection for the recipient, but there is no vaccine yet available for children. However, there are ways to limit the transmission between students, teachers, and staff within schools, the report states, including known interventions, and outbreaks “will be small if countermeasures are sufficient.”

Lacy Fahrenbach, deputy secretary of COVID-19 response with the state DOH, says the study supports what has been observed in the literature, with the experience of schools in the state, and in recent CDC guidance that “while testing and vaccines can provide additional levels of disease mitigation in schools, consistent use of robust health and safety measures and lower community prevalence of COVID-19 are foundational to reducing risks to everyone — students, educators, staff, and their families.”

The researchers also say high schools are the most likely to have large outbreaks because the schools are bigger, students move around more, and older students appear to be more susceptible to infection. K-5 is at lower risk of introductions compared to middle and high schools. A phased-in approach for K-5 schools, the report found, has a 25% lower introduction rate compared to a five-day-a-week schedule.

Unfortunately, the report says there are few tools available to reduce the introduction rate of COVID at schools, but high-frequency diagnostic screening of students, teachers, and staff does have the potential to reduce the rate by as much as 50% “where and when practical.”

“Taken together, our reports provide insights into the complex dynamics related to COVID-19 and reopening schools,” said Daniel Klein, senior research scientist at IDM. “Even when teachers and staff are vaccinated, there are no zero-risk solutions. Yet the most durable finding across all of our analyses is that countermeasures and symptom screening — combined with diagnostic testing in high-transmission settings — can effectively mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our schools and communities.”

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In Washington, there have been 84 outbreaks from Aug. 1, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2020, across K-12 schools in the state. The 84 outbreaks included 305 COVID-19 cases. Of those cases, half were among students age 18 or under. The DOH says 64% of the outbreaks involved just two or three cases.

KIRO Radio’s Diane Duthweiler contributed to this report.

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Report: Vaccinating school staff less impact on COVID outbreaks than countermeasures