One month into school, few Covid outbreaks among kids in Salem

A sign in a third grade classroom on the first day of school at Liberty Elementary School on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Salem – and the rest of Oregon – haven’t seen a spike in kids seriously ill with Covid since local schools resumed in-person classes in early September.

Though it’s still early in the school year, state data shows that schools haven’t driven significant increases in new cases of the disease in children.

“I think we would have seen something by now,” said Dr. Dawn Nolt, professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Oregon Health and Science University’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.

She attributed the lack of a Covid spike in kids to safety protocols in schools, which generally require students and employees to wear masks and stay three feet apart where possible.

The rate of Covid infections among kids in Oregon climbed in August and early September as community spread of the virus increased and more adults got sick.

But in the weeks since, the number of new infections among kids has been relatively flat, according to data from Oregon Health Authority.

“We are still at the start of the school year, so it’s too early to make a full assessment of the impact of the multi-layered approach used by schools to protect staff and students from COVID-19. However, our continued decline in cases statewide is reassuring now that we’re about a month into the school year,” said health authority spokesperson Rudy Owens in an email.

While it can take up to two weeks for the virus to show symptoms, Nolt said the Delta variant is generally on the shorter end of that timeframe.

“We’ve had enough time in school to give us the sense that right now rates aren’t being driven up,” Nolt said.

She said that could change if community spread of the virus increases again, though new infections have been slowing in recent weeks.

Here’s some key data about kids and Covid.

Salem students with Covid flat last week

Eighty-five students in the Salem-Keizer School District were diagnosed with Covid last week, according to a district dashboard updated on weekends. Those numbers include students in district preschool programs.

That’s about the same number as the week prior, which recorded 89 student cases.

The number of students who were identified as close contacts of someone with Covid at school was 285 last week, up from 244 the week prior.

Students identified as close contacts do not necessarily need to quarantine at home. Those fully vaccinated against the virus can stay in school so long as they remain healthy.

Students who were within six feet of someone with Covid at school can also stay in class so long as they and the person with Covid were wearing masks and stayed at least three feet apart, according to state and district rules.

Since the school year began, four district classrooms have moved online because of student illness, district spokesman Aaron Harada said.

Two were classes with one student Covid case each where the number of classmates exposed was high enough that it was logistically easier to move online. One, at Chapman Hill Elementary School, has already resumed in-person class, while students in a second grade Weddle Elementary School classroom moved online last week.

Two others were classrooms at Grant Elementary School where the share of students who called out sick was high enough that a district nurse determined moving class online was safer, even though no students have to date tested positive for Covid, Harada said.

Marion County recorded 215 new cases of Covid in kids the week of Sept. 5, 254 the week of Sept. 12 and 215 the week of Sept. 19, according to OHA, though the authority said data for recent weeks could be incomplete as new cases are diagnosed.

Polk County recorded 76 Covid cases in kids the week of Sept. 5, 60 the week of Sept. 12 and 33 the week of Sept. 19.

Schools generally have isolated Covid cases, not outbreaks

As of Monday, Salem-Keizer School District nurses have identified one instance where they believe Covid spread between two students at South Salem High School, Harada said.

Otherwise, he said the cases recorded at each school are generally isolated.

“Our data is not showing transmission inside the school,” he said.

Nolt said that’s what she’s seen across Oregon as schools have reopened.

“If there’s any sort of cluster or transmission, it’s at most one to three people. It’s not like one person has spread it and it keeps going,” she said. “We’re not seeing big outbreaks.”

Few kids are hospitalized with Covid

While the number of kids five and under who were hospitalized with Covid increased in August and early September, total numbers remain low. At a peak on Sept. 5, 11 Oregonians under five were hospitalized with Covid.

Nolt said the hospitalization numbers for children remain far lower than for adults, and Oregon is in no danger of running out of pediatric hospital beds for kids who are ill or injured. Hospital beds for kids are more often occupied by adults sent to pediatric units because the state’s hospitals have been overrun by adult Covid patients, she said.

Only about half of Covid cases in kids record any symptoms of illness, state data shows.

Nolt said that’s consistent with what she’s seen at Doernbecher. The hospital has had six to eight kids with Covid in beds each day in recent weeks, but she said many are in the hospital for other reasons, like unrelated surgeries.

Like most hospitals, Doernbecher tests inpatients for Covid regardless of whether or not they have symptoms so health care workers can take appropriate precautions. That’s how many kids with Covid in the hospital learn they have the virus.

“Many of these cases are sort of just found because they’re trying to protect people,” Nolt said.

Since the pandemic began, just three Oregon children under the age of 18 have died from Covid, among more than 45,000 who have had the virus, according to state data.

Teens have the highest rate of Covid

Though they’re eligible to be vaccinated against the virus, Oregonians age 12 to 17 have a higher rate of illness than kids 11 and under.

Nolt and Owens said that likely reflects how teens socialize and spend time together. With extracurricular activities, sports and social events, they’re more likely to be out and about with their peers than younger kids.

“They interact with each other a lot more so there’s probably more contagion happening there,” Nolt said.

Covid in general infects and spreads among adults more easily than children, and that’s held true for the more contagious Delta variant. But Nolt said older teens typically have almost the same amount of virus in their bodies as young adults and become infected about as easily, while younger kids are less likely to get sick or to show symptoms if they do.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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