As students in Louisiana have returned to school from summer break so has COVID, with cases among school-age children nearly quadrupling while other age groups show little change.
Last time counts about children ages 5-17 were this high was in early February when Louisiana was coming out of an outbreak brought on by the omicron variant. That age range is currently reporting more than twice as many cases as any other group.
Counts among 5-17 year-olds are higher now than they were in July, the most recent peak for the virus in Louisiana, while other age groups remain well below where they were then.
Compared to earlier stages of the pandemic, hospitalizations and death rates for COVID in Louisiana, including those for children, remain low, though they are higher than they were when the virus last bottomed out in early April.
Also, despite greatly loosened safety measures being employed by schools, few districts this school year have announced drastic changes in operations due to the virus. One exception is Wedgewood Elementary in Baton Rouge when it announced it was shifting to virtual after its fourth day of school. The virtual shift, however, lasted only one day.
Weekly school-based COVID testing continues in many schools, uncovering cases of COVID that might otherwise have gone undetected. Its data, however, suggest that the testing is not the main driver of the recent four-fold increase in cases among school-age children. The data accounts for at most 14% of the more than 6,300 cases reported among 5-17 year-olds so far for the month of August.
The Advocate has asked the Louisiana Department of Health to discuss why data on school-age children indicates so many more cases of late than other Louisianans. A spokesman for the state health agency says they plan to share more information this coming week.
The public’s ability to track the spread of this potentially deadly virus, particularly in school settings, has diminished over time.
LDH plans to soon roll out a new version of a weekly report on COVID cases in K-12 schools based on data reported by the schools themselves. That report, which began two years ago when schools reopened for the 2020-21 school year, had become increasingly less reliable over time as fewer and fewer schools participated in a timely fashion or at all.
Few Louisiana schools publicly report their caseloads anymore. For instance, the New Orleans public school system discontinued its weekly COVID tracker at the end of last school year.
The East Baton Rouge Parish school system is still posting weekly reports on cases. For the week ending Aug. 26, its second report, there were 121 cases overall as well as 205 quarantines. That’s up from the week before when 77 cases were reported overall along with 110 quarantines. Twenty-seven schools reported cases in week 2 versus 22 schools in week 1. That’s out of 73 school campuses participating.
The data on COVID by age group in Louisiana comes from a report that LDH updates every Wednesday. The latest report covers cases between Aug. 18 and 24, citing the results of tests administered by pharmacies, labs, hospitals and medical practices.
The data, however, is generally missing the results of at-home COVID tests, which have become the most common way Americans figure out whether they have the virus or not.
As at-home testing has grown in Louisiana, commercial COVID testing in Louisiana has declined. It is now as low as it’s been since June 2020, when the state first began reopening after the Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order that March and COVID testing was still not widely available.
With at-home testing commonplace, people who leave their house these days to get tested are often sick already or suspect they are sick. That has helped to lead to higher positivity rates in state health data.
One of the better subsets of COVID data these days comes from the weekly surveillance testing for the virus that many Louisiana schools continue to do. When school is in session, this testing accounts for about a third of all the commercial test results submitted to LDH.
This federally funded program is called Safer, Smarter Schools in Louisiana. It is voluntary. It’s not only free for participants, these individuals can earn additional money for each time they get swabbed. It’s meant to serve as an early alert system, allowing schools to identify and isolate cases of COVID among children and adults before the cases spread and disrupt operations.
Orion Laboratories in Baton Rouge is one of Louisiana’s three providers of this weekly testing, which began in August 2021. Orion tests students in several school districts in the Baton Rouge and Lafayette areas, as well as some private schools.
This year, the lab created a new online platform for students and educators to sign up for weekly testing that’s being used by all three providers. The platform also allows for easier tracking of testing by all three providers.
Because participants get tested every week whether they are sick or not, the program is a better gauge of the spread of the virus than most other commercial testing in the state.
So far this school year, the three providers have accumulated about 65,000 samples from about 29,000 individuals, most of them schoolchildren. About 1,500 of those samples have come back positive for an overall positivity rate of 2.3%. That rate is much lower compared to a positivity rate of roughly 20% positivity rate for all of Louisiana during that time period.
David Slaughter, Orion’s chief executive officer, said the positivity rate of the schools Orion serves increased throughout the month, but declined a bit in the past week. He said that’s normal for when students return from a break.
“Typically it goes up, and then after a week or two weeks of school, it comes back down,” he said.
Schools in New Orleans open a bit later.
Melonie Falcon, president of Omega Diagnostics in New Orleans, which administers the testing program for New Orleans area schools, said positivity is still increasing in its schools.
“Each day this week, we were getting more positives,” she said.
Both Slaughter and Falcon expressed concern that whether cases rise or fall in September, a surge is coming. Surges tend to recur roughly every three months, they said. If that holds true, it would mean a new surge perhaps in October.
They said weekly testing like those they offer has helped in the past to keep their schools operating.
“They were able to isolate and get those students out of the system before it spread, so there was not a true outbreak,” Falcon said.
The new signup platform adds to those capabilities by allowing families to instantaneously register for the program if they haven’t already and get tested the same day that health professionals are on campus. Also helping are recent rule changes that enable the providers to administer more free testing if it looks like an outbreak might be coming.
“If we can catch it early enough, instead of 30 people, it’s just the three people,” Slaughter said.