POLK COUNTY — Officials in Dallas and Central school districts are monitoring the latest wave of COVID-19 cases closely, but have not proposed closing schools or pausing sports and extracurricular activities as of Monday.
The omicron variant-driven increase in cases was the topic of discussion at school board meetings in both districts on Monday evening, with neither board taking action to alter school or sports schedules.
Dallas Superintendent Andy Bellando said on Monday, the district had 322 students and 24 teachers absent. Of the student absences, at least 140 — and very likely more — were due to COVID-19 illness or exposure.
“Most other school districts in Oregon are experiencing a similar trend right now. Even with this impact, our schools remain open and operational,” Bellando wrote in an update to parent and students issued on Friday. “We are doing everything possible to keep it that way. Returning to distance learning is the very last option that I would consider if we could not fully staff a school.”
Kim Kellison, the district’s director of teaching and learning, said with the number of available substitute teachers remaining low, teachers and other staff have been working to the point of exhaustion to cover for absent co-workers to keep students in in-person classes.
“I commend our administrators, teachers and classified employees for their responses to support the staffing needs of each school, often with unique and creative solutions,” Bellando wrote in his Friday update. “These efforts are exhausting and are really testing our educators. Please continue to be patient as we adjust, often daily, to remain operational.”
Kellison said the state recommended pausing extra-curricular activities temporarily to decrease exposure to COVID-19. As of Monday, the district has decided against doing that. However, Kellison said the district may consider limiting or eliminating spectators at games and events if masking and other precautions are not followed.
“One of the recent recommendations from ODE is that we should consider pausing extracurricular activities in our schools. We are not doing so at this time,” Bellando wrote. “Rather, we are reaching out to our partners that use our facilities and stressing the need for vigilant masking and other precautions during this period of potentially heavy virus spread due to the Omicron variant. We will continue to monitor our own activities as well. Since our ultimate goal is to keep students in our schools, restricting of spectators will be considered if the heavy virus spread continues.”
School officials said parents should keep children home if they are sick.
“If your student has symptoms of COVID-19, please do not send them to school. We continue to provide the test to stay program for students and staff members in all DSD schools, if they are exposed while at school. The test to stay program for students requires written parent consent,” Bellando wrote. “Unfortunately, we do not have the ability or sufficient number of testing kits to test students if requested by parents. There are multiple testing options available in the area. Check out this link from the Polk County Health Department.”
Any active positive cases of COVID-19 inside homes require all students in the home to quarantine for a minimum of five days. Quarantine longer than five days may be necessary if there is continuous household exposure to COVID, Kellison said.
Statewide, officials are on a “red alert” of the growing wave of the omicron variant of COVID-19 that pushed the daily new case count to 10,451 Friday, eclipsing the records set over the past four days. OHA reported 18,538 more cases and 18 deaths on Monday, bringing the count to 478,203 and deaths to 5,779. Monday’s report included case counts from Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“Once again, COVID-19 has regrouped and is marching across Oregon,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state chief epidemiologist, in a Friday press call.
With the new wave forecast to peak on Jan. 27 with 1,650 people in the hospital, the Oregon Health Authority issued a “crisis care” protocol to guide doctors on prioritizing possibly life-or-death care.
Based on a model already used by Washington and other states, patients who would not survive if discharged have top priority. Patients already under care take precedence over newly arriving cases of the same level. If a choice needs to be made between two patients in identical medical situations, the choice will be made at random using a system on OHA’s website.
“This is a very difficult topic to consider and work on,” said Dana Hargunani, Oregon Health Authority chief medical officer.
OHA said the protocol was “interim” because it is being implemented without the normal level of review and public comment. Changes could be made in the future.
The protocol requires hospitals to inform OHA when they need to implement the system and also post that it is being used in public view at hospital entrances.
Omicron spreads twice as fast as the delta variant that swamped Oregon hospitals, peaking in September.
Early studies show omicron more easily infects fully vaccinated people compared to earlier versions of COVID-19. But people who have received the two-shot Pfizer or Moderna vaccine and also had the recently added booster shot are unlikely to suffer the worst outcomes.
In so-called “breakthrough” cases, people who have had the maximum number of shots make up about 4% of those needing hospital care and 1% of deaths. The average age of death for that group is 81.
Sidelinger said omicron was a “red alert” for unvaccinated people, who make up the vast majority of severe cases requiring hospitalization, intensive care unit beds, ventilators and whose infections prove fatal.
But the severity of omicron will be largely offset by the sheer number of people who will be infected.
“That doesn’t help with the kind of all-at-once impact on hospital capacity that we’re going to see here, and hopefully prevent,” said Peter Graven, the chief medical forecaster for Oregon Health & Science University.
The unvaccinated who fall severely ill will require high levels of care that will make it more difficult for already overstretched and exhausted medical personnel to care for people with heart attacks, strokes, and injuries from vehicle accidents.
Gov. Kate Brown also ordered the Oregon National Guard to deploy what Sidelinger called 500 “non-clinically trained” members to help relieve hospital staff around the state whose staff are depleted by infections among their own ranks.
Which hospitals will receive aid from the National Guard is under consideration and won’t likely be announced until Monday, according to Brown Press Secretary Liz Merah.
Under recent state guidelines following recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anyone vaccinated who tests positive for COVID-19 should isolate for five days, then wear a mask in all places for another five days.
The Oregon officials said they were monitoring states to the east, where the omicron spike arrived earlier. The ability of omicron to infect vaccinated people has led to staff shortages in medical emergency responders, schools, law enforcement, public transit, private businesses and government agencies.
COVID-19 will take its toll on the schools, said Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education.
Keeping children in classrooms was the “north star” that the state was following as closely as possible.
But the virus is having an impact on schools that is likely to rise in coming weeks.
“I’m not saying students and staff won’t be exposed,” Gill said
Graven said the forecast will peak with hospitalizations 30% higher than the peak of the delta variant at the beginning of September.
Sidelinger said that he understood people are fatigued by what are now six waves of the virus since the pandemic reached Oregon in February 2020. But dropping masking, social distancing or not getting as many vaccinations are recommended will only extend the time before new infections get low enough for a return to some pre-COVID-19 conditions.
“We’re all tired of the virus, but the virus is not tired of us,” he said.
— I-O editor Jolene Guzman contributed to this report.