School Board Gets Virus Update From Local Health Officials

Health officials give a positive rating to the Palm Beach County School District on its efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 in the face of a recent increase in transmissibility.

Florida Department of Health-Palm Beach County Director Dr. Alina Alonso and Dr. Belma Andric, chief medical officer for the Health Care District of Palm Beach County, gave an update to the Palm Beach County School Board on Wednesday, Sept. 1 on the status of COVID-19 as it relates to school operations.

“They are here for a policy workshop regarding the COVID-19 conditions we are facing, and they have agreed to provide a presentation,” Superintendent Michael Burke said. “The Department of Health remains a terrific partner of ours as we work through this pandemic, along with the Health Care District.”

Alonso said the national COVID-19 rate is now spiking over its last peak after the summer holidays of 2020.

“The peak occurred on July 17, then everything was going down. Then when we opened up and got ready for school, it started slowly going up in October and November,” she recalled. “Then we had our [winter] holidays, and vaccinations came here in December, and we started going down… We said, ‘Wow, this is over.’”

But this past Memorial Day and the Fourth of July turned out to be super spreaders, and the numbers started to go up sharply, and nearly the entire country is now in the CDC’s “high” rate of transmission.

“This has caused a lot of problems for staffing for the hospitals to be able to get people across from different industries, such as healthcare, to help one another, because the entire country is in the same shape that we are here in Florida,” Alonso said.

In Palm Beach County, the current spike of cases per week is one-third higher than the previous spike that occurred last January.

“On Jan. 16, we were at 6,000 cases per week,” she said. “Now, we’re at 9,000 cases per week. We’ve gone down a little bit in the last week or so, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that it’s not just a little dip, and it will come down a bit. The community spread is very high, and that’s why we need to keep our eye on it.”

Alonso noted that the highly contagious delta variant now makes up nearly all the virus cases.

“This variant is causing a lot of the trouble because not only is it more contagious, it’s more easily spread from person to person, but it’s also causing some of those breakthroughs where you hear some of those people have been vaccinated,” she said. “The vaccine is doing its job, because its job is to keep you out of the hospital and not dying.”

Local hospitals have reported that almost all hospitalized virus patients are unvaccinated.

Alonso was happy to report that vaccinations are still increasing in the county, with minors ages 12 to 19 having the greatest increase and are now at over 50 percent.

“I think the Health Care District has done a great job getting all those kids vaccinated, and especially the parents for bringing them in and getting them vaccinated,” she said, adding that those ages 70 to 79 and ages 60 to 69 remain the highest at above 90 percent vaccinated.

She added that the county’s number of COVID-19 cases in children under 18 is rising rapidly, with 2,794 cases over the past week.

Alonso added that Pfizer is expected to have a vaccine ready for ages 5 to 11 by late fall or early winter.

Andric, who oversees the school vaccination program, said her staff had placed mobile vaccination clinics at five different locations around the county that are accessible and easy to locate, which were implemented shortly after the age was expanded.

“The majority of the vaccines were given to the children, but also their families,” Andric said, adding that sharing the operation between the school district, the health department and the health care district was never better.

“During last year, we learned much better to work together,” she said. “I think we are in a great position to have all those resources and multi-agencies to help the school district have a successful year. I think resilience and hope, about what we talk very often, you don’t have any other choice.”

School Board Member Marcia Andrews asked what parents should do for their child as far as being diagnosed quickly once exposed to the virus.

Andric said everything the school district is doing, such as increasing testing, will bring a lot of ease on parents, but when the numbers go down in the community, they will go down in the school. She explained that the tests being used in schools are tests of transmissibility.

“We try to really catch early any transmissibility potential for children who have any respiratory symptoms,” she said.