Washington health officials watching Midwest COVID-19 variant outbreaks in schools

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COVID-19 infections in Washington schools have been low, but state officials are keeping an eye on outbreaks of the B117 variant at Minnesota schools.

Does a COVID variant have more of an impact on children, and should it be any cause for concern as kids return to school? Local health and district officials say as of right now, they’re not sure.

“At this point, it’s not something that’s going to derail our effort to get the kids educated on-site,” said Snohomish County Chief Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters on Tuesday. However, he and others are closely monitoring events in the Midwest.

Dr. Michael Osterholm is the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He rang alarm bells on Sunday, in an interview on “Meet the Press,” when he suggested the UK variant, also known as B117, is making its way through his state’s school system.

“The B117 variant is a brand new ballgame,” Osterholm said on the show. “In fact, right here in Minnesota, we’re now seeing the other aspect of this B117 variant that hasn’t been talked much about, and that is the fact that it infects kids very readily.” 

Osterholm said 749 schools in Minnesota have had B117 activity.

“We’re going to have to reconsider what we’re doing now.,”Osterholm said.

Osterholm also pointed to data from the United Kingdom, which first had the variant, and the 50,000 children who tested positive in the first month.

However, here in Washington the situation does not appear to be as dire.  A survey of Western Washington’s ten largest school districts shows just a handful of COVID-19 cases in children, in districts with thousands of students.

“We are monitoring the situation. Washington state has a robust surveillance system for identifying variants. In fact, we are one of the top states for genome sequencing, the process for identifying variants. We currently sequence more specimens than nearly any other state in the U.S,” said a spokesperson for Dr. Scott Lindquist, acting DOH health officer. “It has just not been a huge issue here in Washington state yet. We will continue to monitor the situation.”

Dr. Danielle Zerr, the Seattle Children’s Hospital Chief of Pediatric Infectious Disease, also said through a spokesperson that more study is needed.

Health officials will watch if “the new variants cause children to have more severe illness, children are more likely to transmit the new variants, and whether children are now more important ‘drivers’ of the pandemic with the emergence of the new variant,” according to Zerr’s spokesperson.

The Seattle School District, which just brought back elementary students for in-person learning on Monday, also said it is following CDC guidelines and has a plan in the variant becomes a problem. 

The DOH guidance for a COVID-19 outbreak in schools when grouping or cohorting students is, to dismiss the entire classroom for home quarantined for 14 days if two or more laboratory positive (PCR or antigen) COVID-19 cases occur within the group or cohort within a 14 day period.

Further, a school will be closed and switch to remote learning for 14 days when one of the following occurs: two or more classrooms are dismissed due to outbreaks in schools with 10 or fewer classrooms; 10% or more of classrooms are dismissed due to outbreaks in schools with greater than 10 classrooms; or the school cannot function due to insufficient teaching or support staff.”

The state Department of Health has previously said it is hopeful the current Pfizer vaccine testing on kids 12-15 years old will be successful and approved for usage before kids return to school in the fall.

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