More Ohio children were diagnosed with COVID-19 in December than any in month since the start of the pandemic, and experts fear even more kids could be infected as they returned to schools this week following holiday gatherings.
A record 50,866 Ohio children tested positive for the virus in December, according to the Ohio Department of Health. The last week of 2021 also saw the highest number of weekly childhood infections with 15,095 reported, state data shows.
The latest surge in cases, which has occurred among both children and adults, threatens to upend winter activities and has already forced some area schools to temporarily close or switch to remote learning.
Cases high among children but omicron peak still hasn’t been reached in Ohio
“Now we’re entering the third year of these events being interrupted and it has tremendous impact on the mental health and normal development of children and adolescents,” said Dr. Rustin Morse, chief medical officer at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “I suspect we will continue to have these waves.”
So far in the new year, 23 individual schools that are part of Columbus City Schools, Reynoldsburg City Schools and Westerville City Schools have been forced to pivot to remote learning due to staffing shortages, bus driver shortages or heating issues.
School nurses are already beginning to notice more COVID infections among students who have returned to classes in person, said Kate King, a nurse at World Language Middle School in Columbus who is also president-elect of the National Association of School Nurses.
King said she’s fielded several calls from parents saying their child contracted COVID-19 during winter break. It’s too soon to know how easily the highly infectious omicron variant will spread in schools since this marks the first week back for most students, King said.
The omicron variant of COVID-19 accounted for 25% of all Ohio cases while the delta variant made up nearly 75% of all Ohio cases for the two weeks ending Dec. 18, according to the latest data available from the Ohio Department of Health. Nationwide, the omicron variant is already thought to have overtaken delta as the dominant strain of the virus.
“We’re seeing a bit of an explosion of reports of positive cases,” said King. “…I think we’ll see next week or the week after how omicron affects school because we just really haven’t seen it at its peak.”
How schools are handling in-person learning during current COVID surge
While decisions about COVID-19 protocols have been left to local school district leaders, Columbus Public Health has advised various schools throughout the pandemic and continues to monitor outbreaks as they arise, said spokeswoman Kelli Newman.
Students should remain in the classroom as long as everyone is masking, getting vaccinated when eligible, socially distancing, washing their hands and staying home when sick, Newman said.
“We have been very clear that we believe kids should remain in the classroom with all mitigation practices in place,” Newman said.
Westerville City Schools has required students and staff to wear masks since the start of the school year, with the goal of slowing down the spread of the virus and maintaining “in-person learning as much as possible,” Superintendent John R. Kellogg said.
Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened the recommended COVID-19 isolation period from 10 days to 5 days in an attempt to address things like staffing shortages at a variety of workplaces.
Westerville schools has yet to shorten its quarantine period, hesitating out of an abundance of caution. Instead, Westerville is sticking with a 10-day quarantine with the option to test back to school on day eight, Kellogg said.
“We just want to get a better handle on what we’re dealing with before we reduce some of our mitigation strategies,” he said.
Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, 295,223 pediatric infections have been reported across Ohio, along with 2,739 hospitalizations. At least 21 Ohioans ages 0 to 17 have died of COVID, according to the state.
As cases among Ohio kids reached an all-time high in December, Nationwide Children’s was nearing its 1,000th patient admitted with symptomatic COVID since March 2020, said Morse. The hospital has also treated another roughly 700 patients who tested positive for the virus while being seen for another reason, Morse said.
As with most patients hospitalized for COVID, the vast majority of children admitted to Nationwide Children’s are unvaccinated, Morse said. More than 94% of Ohioans hospitalized with the virus in 2021 were unvaccinated, according to the state health department.
The numbers show that vaccination, Morse said, remains the most critical tool to halting the spread of the virus among kids. But, just 23% of Ohioans ages 0 to 19 are fully vaccinated, state data shows.
“It’s safe, it’s effective … We have never admitted a child because of a vaccine reaction,” Morse said. “If you’re a parent and your child is unvaccinated, they might end up in the hospital on a breathing tube. That’s what would concern me.”