COVID-19 update: Unvaccinated school employees will no longer be required to test weekly

OCDE continues to track the latest developments related to COVID-19 while following guidance from the California Department of Public Health and the Orange County Health Care Agency. Below is our running digest, with newer stories posted at the top.

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Updated at 4:29 p.m. on Sept. 13, 2022

State: Unvaccinated K-12 employees will no longer be required to test weekly

School employees who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 will no longer have to undergo weekly testing as of Sept. 17, the California Department of Public Health announced Tuesday.

The requirement for K-12 staff to show proof of their vaccination status or get tested weekly had been in place since August 2021 based on a public health order issued by CDPH Director Dr. Tomás J. Aragón. Even as California issued updated guidance for schools in June, the directive for unvaccinated employees remained unchanged.

In a revised order dated Sept. 13, Aragón, who also serves as the state’s public health officer, reaffirmed that vaccines and boosters are the most important strategies for preventing serious illness and death associated with COVID-19. But, he said, newer Omicron subvariants have shown their ability to evade vaccination and immunity barriers.

“Consequently, mandated testing of the small number of unvaccinated workers is not effectively preventing disease transmission as with the original COVID-19 virus and prior variants earlier in the pandemic” Aragón wrote.

The Orange County Health Care Agency said this week that it would amend its own public health order to reflect changes at the state level.

According to the CDPH, about 80 percent of Californians aged 12 years and older have completed their primary series of COVID-19 vaccines, and nearly half have received their first booster dose. Vaccine coverage is also high among workers in high-risk settings, and the proportion of unvaccinated workers is low.  

COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 5 to 11 have been available since October 2021.

For the latest resources and updates from the state, visit California’s Safe Schools for All Hub. For COVID-19 data and other information specific to Orange County, visit ochealthinfo.com/covid.

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Updated at 4:05 p.m. on Aug. 19, 2022

State Department of Public Health issues guidance for the 2022-23 school year

State health officials have released updated guidance to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 on K-12 campuses in the 2022-23 school year.

The latest guidelines from the California Department of Public Health, which took effect July 1, include considerations and mitigation strategies that are broken down into required and recommended actions. On Aug. 19, the OC Health Care Agency similarly issued a revised county health order reflecting changes at the state level. 

Here are a few key takeaways from the CDPH:

  • Unless otherwise directed by local health departments or educational agencies, students and staff should follow the same masking guidance that the CDPH has issued for the general public. No individual can be prevented from wearing a mask as a condition of participation in an activity or entry into a school — unless wearing a mask would pose a safety hazard, like during water sports. Schools are required to provide face coverings to any student who wants to wear a mask but forgot to bring one.
  • Families should notify schools if their child has COVID-19 and was on school grounds during their infectious period. Schools should, in turn, notify the families of students who spent more than 15 cumulative minutes within a 24-hour time period in a shared indoor airspace. These steps fall under “recommended actions.”
  • Effective ventilation and filtration systems can curb the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, according to the CDPH, which has issued specific recommendations for improving air quality in schools. “It may also protect students and staff from exposure to wildfire smoke and other airborne allergens and pollutants,” the document says.
  • Schools are encouraged to ensure access to COVID-19 testing for students and staff, particularly for vulnerable communities. The CDPH recommends that antigen tests be considered the primary option for detecting COVID-19 in schools, as opposed to PCR tests. 
  • Students diagnosed with COVID-19 should follow the same guidance issued for the general public, including staying home for at least five days and wearing a well-fitting mask around others for a total of 10 days, especially in indoor settings.
  • Vaccinations remain an important tool in preventing serious illnesses. The state strongly recommends that all eligible individuals get vaccinated against COVID-19 and remain up to date. 

Since the summer of 2020, the state’s Department of Public Health has regularly updated its guidance for TK-12 schools based on statewide trends and the latest recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The latest COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 Schools can be found on the CDPH website.

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Updated at 4:15 p.m. on June 22, 2022

OC Health Care Agency makes plans to offer vaccine to young children 6 months and older

The OC Health Care Agency is preparing to offer the Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech vaccines to infants and toddlers after they were granted approval by the California Department of Public Health and the Western States Safety Review Workgroup on Sunday, June 19.

One day earlier, on June 18, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it was recommending that children 6 months or older receive their COVID-19 vaccinations. Approximately 20 million more children are now be eligible for the vaccine, according to the CDC.

“This week, limited shipments of COVID-19 vaccines for young children will begin shipping to providers who have ordered the vaccine through the CDPH, including the HCA,” HCA Director Dr. Clayton Chau said in a statement.

A partnership between the agency’s Public Health Services Division and Children’s Health of Orange County will authorize select CHOC locations to offer vaccination services to young children once they receive the new vaccine shipments. Young children now eligible for the vaccine will be given a smaller amount of the dose than teenagers and adults.

Parents and legal guardians will be able to locate vaccine centers for their children and book appointments at www.vaccines.gov. They can also accelerate the availability process by checking with their pharmacy and primary care providers. 

As the agency’s vaccination plans progress in the coming week, appointments at the HCA and CHOC sites will be accessible at www.Othena.com

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Updated at 6:30 p.m. on April 14, 2022

Any vaccine mandate for students won’t happen until July 2023 at the earliest, state says

Any state requirement for students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 won’t take effect before July 1, 2023, the California Department of Public Health announced Thursday.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom previously announced plans to add the COVID-19 shot to the list of required vaccinations for K-12 students, the state said full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was a precondition to starting the process.

To date, the federal officials have granted emergency-use authorization for COVID-19 vaccines to be given to children 5 and older, but they have yet to fully authorize shots for students under the age of 16. Even if that changes between now and the next school year, that wouldn’t leave much time to implement a requirement.

As a result, the CDPH said in a statement that it would “not initiate the regulatory process for a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for the 2022-2023 school year and as such, any vaccine requirements would not take effect until after full FDA approval and no sooner than July 1, 2023.”

“CDPH strongly encourages all eligible Californians, including children, to be vaccinated against COVID-19,” CDPH Director and State Public Health Officer Dr. Tomás J. Aragón said. “We continue to ensure that our response to the COVID-19 pandemic is driven by the best science and data available.”

In a related development, Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) on Thursday withdrew a bill that would have required all California students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 starting in 2023. The legislation would have also eliminated personal exemptions.

“Until children’s access to COVID vaccination is greatly improved, I believe that a state-wide policy to require COVID vaccination in schools is not the immediate priority, although it is an appropriate safety policy for many school districts in communities with good vaccine access,” Pan said.

Once vaccines are fully approved for students younger than 16, CDPH officials say they will consider the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Physicians before implementing a requirement.

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Updated at 3:37 p.m. on March 11, 2022

Latest state and county orders for schools reflect new mask guidance

With California’s school mask mandate shifting to a strong recommendation, state health officials have released new guidance for public and private schools.

The latest guidelines from the California Department of Public Health are set to take effect on Monday, March 12, covering masking recommendations, extracurricular activities, and quarantine and isolation timelines. The OC Health Care Agency has similarly issued its own revised county health order reflecting changes at the state level.

When state officials announced on Feb. 28 that California’s indoor masking order for students and staff would transition to a strong recommendation after March 11, it was widely expected that new CDPH guidance would be forthcoming. Revised quarantine and isolation protocols have been especially anticipated.

On that subject, the CDPH says it will continue to allow a group-tracing approach, in which schools notify the families of all students who spent at least 15 minutes within a 24-hour span in a shared indoor airspace with someone who had COVID-19 and was contagious.

In this scenario, any exposed students, regardless of their vaccination status, are advised to get tested within three to five days after their last exposure — unless they already had COVID-19 within the last 90 days. Exposed students may continue to take part in all aspects of K-12 schooling, including sports and extracurricular activities, unless they develop symptoms or test positive.

Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 is directed to isolate for 10 days, but isolation can end after day five if symptoms are not present — or they’re resolving — and the person has tested negative with a specimen that was collected on day five or later. Antigen tests are preferred, the CDPH says.

Since the summer of 2020, the California Department of Public Health has regularly updated guidance for TK-12 schools based in part on recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With the most recent COVID-19 surge waning, state health leaders say their focus is on promoting long-term prevention strategies and ensuring safe in-person instruction.

“To mitigate in-school transmission, a multi-layered strategy continues to be important, including but not limited to getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, staying home when sick, isolating if positive, getting tested, and optimizing indoor air quality,” the department says.

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Updated at 9:45 a.m. on March 8, 2022

State outlines considerations for future school masking requirements

As of March 12, local health agencies and school districts will have the authority to decide whether to maintain or establish masking requirements for their K-12 schools, according to the California Department of Public Health.

In a memo dated March 7, the CDPH affirmed that authority and recommended that local health and education officials work together and weigh several factors when determining whether a face covering requirement is warranted.

Considerations should include local case numbers, evidence suggesting heightened in-school transmission, vaccination rates, indoor air quality, availability of personal protective equipment, higher-risk populations, staffing levels and other factors.  

“Reliance on the composite situation, rather than any one single factor, is recommended when making determinations,” the CDPH says.

State officials announced on Feb. 28 that California’s indoor mask mandate for schools will be lowered to a strong recommendation after March 11. However, local jurisdictions may continue their masking requirements based on conditions impacting their communities.

For more information, visit California’s Safe Schools for All Hub. For COVID-19 data and other information specific to Orange County, visit ochealthinfo.com/covid.

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Updated at 9:37 a.m. on March 1, 2022

Workplace safety rules for schools changed to reflect new masking guidance

On the heels of California’s new indoor masking guidance, Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed an executive order that aligns workplace safety rules for unvaccinated school employees and other workers.

Based on changes to the Division of Occupational Safety and Health COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standards, educators and support staff who work in TK-12 school settings will not be required by the state to wear masks while indoors after March 11, regardless of their vaccinations status. However, masking will remain a strong recommendation. Moreover, local jurisdictions or employers may continue to require face coverings.

Consistent with this week’s newly updated guidance from the California Department of Public Health, masks are no longer required indoors for most other workers as of Tuesday, March 1. But again, they are strongly recommended for all individuals when inside, and employers must provide a face covering upon an employee’s request.

The CDPH says masks will continue to be required for everyone in “high transmission settings,” including public transit, emergency shelters, health care environments, correctional facilities, homeless shelters and long-term care facilities.

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Updated at 11:32 a.m. on Feb. 28, 2022

State masking requirement for schools to end after March 11

California’s indoor masking order for schools will be downgraded to a strong recommendation beginning March 12, state officials announced today.

In a joint news release, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington cited declining case rates and hospitalizations as the basis for easing face-covering requirements for students and staff on public and private school campuses. The new guidance also applies to child care settings.

Local jurisdictions may continue their masking requirements based on conditions impacting their communities, and students and staff may still choose to wear masks. But they will no longer be a state requirement after 11:59 p.m. on Friday, March 11. 

“We are pleased that the state of California has confirmed a date for our schools to join other sectors in making masking protocols voluntary based on the level of community risk,” Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares said.

“Throughout the pandemic, OCDE and Orange County school districts have consistently underscored the importance of using data and science as the foundation for high-level decision-making involving the safety of students and staff,” Mijares said. “As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations decline, our schools will adjust their health and safety strategies accordingly and continue their focus on high-quality teaching and learning.”  

The OCDE Newsroom has the full story.

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Updated at 2:10 p.m. on Feb. 14, 2022

State’s top health official says a decision on masking in schools could be announced Feb. 28

California will spend two weeks evaluating COVID-19 data and conditions before making a determination on the future of masks in schools, the state’s top health official said Monday.

Speaking during an afternoon news conference, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly did not identify a specific threshold for lifting the requirement. But, he said, the state will reassess case rates, testing positivity percentages, hospitalizations, pediatric hospitalizations and vaccine rates and, on Feb. 28, possibly announce a date for transitioning masks from a mandate to a “strong recommendation” when students and staff are indoors on school campuses.

Future of school masking graphic

“Masking requirements were never put in place to be there forever,” he said. “It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when.”

On Feb. 16, the sweeping indoor mask mandate that was originally announced in December is set to expire for vaccinated Californians. But the mandate will remain in effect for unvaccinated individuals, and indoor masking rules still apply for schools, child care centers, health care settings, long-term care facilities and jails.

Meanwhile, the California Department of Public Health continues to recommend established precautions that, when taken together, close off nearly all avenues for COVID-19 infection. These include avoiding large gatherings, improving indoor ventilation, washing hands, wearing a mask in public, getting vaccinated and getting boosted when eligible.

Rates continue to fall

Ghaly said state officials are encouraged by the rapid decrease in COVID-19 numbers across California, noting that overall cases have dropped 75.4 percent, hospitalizations are down 40.6 percent and the testing positivity rate has fallen 72.9 percent since Jan. 14. Moreover, prediction models used by California forecast steep declines in hospitalizations in the weeks ahead, he said.

Based on these trends, a coalition of Orange County superintendents issued a statement on Friday asking the governor and the CDPH to announce a criteria and timeline for easing school masking requirements and other COVID-19 protocols. They noted that all school districts are legally compelled to follow public health directives set forth by the governor, the CDPH and the OC Health Care Agency. Actions to the contrary risk school closures.

Ghaly said it is reasonable to conclude that the state is getting close to a point where masking requirements can be relaxed in schools, but the next steps will involve analyzing data and announcing a date. He added that some communities may choose to keep more restrictive precautions in place based on local conditions.

“One thing that has been important throughout our entire response … especially in schools, is that we don’t make hasty decisions,” he said. “We will take the collection of information together to make a decision that is good for California.”

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Updated at 2:47 p.m. on Feb. 11, 2022

OC superintendents issue joint statement asking state to announce criteria and timeline for easing school masking rules

A coalition of Orange County superintendents issued a statement on Friday asking Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Public Health to announce a criteria for easing school masking requirements and other COVID-19 protocols based on countywide health data.

The superintendents noted that they have been in discussions with the OC Health Care Agency and County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau, who, in his own Feb. 11 letter to the CDPH, proposed using hospitalization rates and ICU capacities as the basis for making mask mandate decisions impacting schools.

Here’s the full statement from Orange County superintendents:

From the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Orange County’s 29 school districts banded together and coordinated closely with the OC Health Care Agency (HCA) to ensure the highest levels of safety for our students, staff and communities. This unified approach allowed us to rapidly share information and best practices as we endured four waves of the virus, multiple variants and a steady stream of new guidance from local, state and national agencies. It also positioned our schools as models for how to safely reopen — and stay open — for in-person instruction. Now, with two years of data points from which to draw, it is time to have a conversation about what comes next.

In Orange County and across the United States, COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations are falling rapidly in the wake of the recent Omicron spike. Outcomes in other countries that have experienced Omicron suggest the worst of the pandemic is behind us, with many nations lifting restrictions. Even California has announced that it will allow its broad indoor mask mandate to expire after Feb. 15, and numerous experts believe we are now headed toward an endemic stage, in which we live with a diminished version of the virus. Based on these trends, and following discussions with our HCA partners, our coalition of Orange County superintendents is asking Governor Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to publicly announce a reasonable timeline for easing school masking requirements and other restrictive protocols, using well-established countywide health metrics as the basis.

As school district leaders, we are legally required to follow public health directives set forth by the governor, the state’s public health department and the OC Health Care Agency. Any actions to the contrary risk school closures. Moreover, we believe that safety protocols such as face coverings, while sometimes polarizing, have proven effective in reducing school-based transmission, which in turn allowed our campuses to remain open. Yet these steps, including the masking rules, were not intended to be permanent adaptations to our environment. These policies were introduced to blunt waves of infections that threatened to overrun our health care systems and close our schools. Students and staff did their part — to extraordinary degrees. Now, we must acknowledge that changing circumstances and clear data trends warrant a re-examination of our approach to school safety, if not a full exit strategy and a return to more normal school operations.

We believe overall hospitalization rates and ICU capacities represent an accurate picture of the threat this virus poses to schools and communities, but we would defer to the expertise of the HCA and the CDPH to establish reliable benchmarks that can be used as the basis for easing restrictions. We also understand that there always exists the potential for new variants or viruses that may renew calls to flatten the curve.

From the onset of this public health crisis, the superintendents of Orange County have been clear-eyed and united behind the goal of providing safe, welcoming and equitable learning environments for students. Two years later, that remains unchanged, as does our commitment to working with our families, employees, public health partners and community members to move our county forward, together.

Spanish translation available

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Updated at 4:59 p.m. on Feb. 7, 2022

California will allow public face covering mandate to expire, but school masking requirements remain for now

California will allow its sweeping mask mandate for indoor public spaces to expire on Feb. 16, but face coverings will remain a state requirement for students and staff while they’re indoors on school campuses — for now anyway. 

In December, amid early reports of the fast-spreading Omicron variant, the California Department of Public Health announced that masking would be temporarily required for all indoor public settings, regardless of vaccination status. While the state order was originally set to expire after Jan. 15, it was extended for one month as case counts surged.

Separately, the CDPH in July released guidance for K-12 schools that called for students and staff to wear face coverings when indoors at school, at least through Nov. 1. Citing the need for ongoing vigilance, state officials on Oct. 28 said the school masking requirement would continue as they monitored conditions through the winter, but no further timetable was given.

Gov. Gavin Newsom shared Monday that the broader public masking requirement will sunset next week, saying COVID-19 cases have decreased 65 percent since Omicron’s peak. But face coverings will still be required indoors for unvaccinated people, and they’ll be mandated for everyone in higher-risk settings, such as nursing homes or while using public transportation. Some counties have also put in place stricter mask orders.

Meanwhile, the state also announced changes to its guidance for large events. However, California has not yet identified a date or metric for easing school-based masking requirements and other protocols.

“The state is continuing to work with education, public health and community leaders to update masking requirements at schools to adapt to changing conditions and ensure the safety of kids, teachers, and staff,” the CDPH said Monday in a news release.

Here’s a quick look at what the CDPH and the Orange County Health Care Agency currently require for public and private schools:

Face coverings must be worn by all students and staff while they’re indoors at school. Masks are not required outdoors, but they are encouraged. Physical distancing is encouraged but not required based on campus space limitations. All school employees must show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or get tested on a weekly basis. Following close contacts, quarantines — or modified quarantines — will vary based on vaccination status and whether one or both parties is wearing a mask. Updated details can be found in the County Health Officer’s latest order, which was revised on Jan. 4. Gov. Gavin Newsom has also announced a phased approach for adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for K-12 students. That timeline is set to begin after federal authorities grant full approval for doses to younger age groups.

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Updated at 12:51 p.m. on Feb. 3, 2022

Federal officials grant full approval to Moderna vaccine as OC’s case rates decline

Amid signs that the Omicron variant may be waning locally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week granted full approval to Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for individuals 18 and up. 

The vaccine, marketed as Spikevax, is now the second to transition from emergency use authorization to full approval. Pfizer’s vaccine for individuals 16 and older was approved by federal officials in August 2021.

“This is great news to reinforce the fact that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines meet the FDA’s standards for safety, effectiveness and quality,” said Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, OC’s deputy county health officer. 

“I hope that the FDA’s approval may instill confidence in those who are still deciding whether to get vaccinated,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “Studies and data support the fact that vaccination reduces severe illness and likelihood of being hospitalized. Our data continues to show that the majority of people who are hospitalized due to COVID-19 are unvaccinated, and the risk is even higher for those with comorbidities or who are immunocompromised.”

According to the OC Health Care Agency, the seven-day average case rate in Orange County decreased from 177 to 126 per 100,000 people between Jan. 26 and Feb. 1. The average number of daily COVID-19 dropped from 5,728 to 4,082 during that span, and the positivity rate fell from 24.6 percent to 17.9 percent. Hospitalizations also dipped, but they still remain high at 872, with 164 patients in local ICUs. 

The HCA also noted that a “sublineage” of the Omicron variant known as “BA.2” has been detected in California, and initial studies suggest it may have a transmission advantage over the original Omicron variant. All of the current preventative measures are still recommended, including:

Getting fully vaccinated and boosted when eligibleWearing a well-fitting mask in public indoor spaces, in crowded settings or around others who are at high risk of getting sick from COVID-19Self-monitoring for symptoms after traveling, attending a high-risk event or coming into close contact with someone who has COVID-19Staying home when sick and following the latest quarantine and self-isolation guidance

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Updated at 3:49 p.m. on Jan. 20, 2022

OCDE employees pitch in to support local schools experiencing Omicron-driven staffing shortages

To help school districts weather staffing shortages during the latest COVID-19 surge, about 100 managers from OCDE’s Educational Services division have been deployed to local campuses this month.  

Their roles have included working with students in classrooms, assisting with contact tracing and performing other duties necessary for school operations. 

Dr. Christine Olmstead, OCDE’s associate superintendent of Educational Services, said members of her team began their temporary assignments last week and have since reported for duty in all of the county’s 28 school districts.

“We plan to provide the support through the 28th to get through the surge,” she said.

The help hasn’t gone unnoticed. Several campuses posted messages of gratitude on their social media accounts. Some staff members and students even wrote thank-you cards and notes.

Julie Roney, an OCDE STEM coordinator who has assisted in multiple classrooms in the Orange Unified School District, said a highlight has been seeing the appreciation from students and staff.

“I have tried to be extremely compassionate with the students and reassure them daily that we are all going to do our best and be kind,” she said, “and we will get through this a day at a time.”

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Updated at 9:07 a.m. on Jan. 19, 2022

OCDE receives shipment of N95 masks for distribution to districts, charter schools

On the heels of receiving at-home COVID-19 testing kits, OCDE has taken delivery of more than 1.7 million N95 masks from the state.

Initially characterized as a 10-day supply, the inventory of N95 masks represents less than 25 percent of what’s been committed by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). Nevertheless, the masks on hand are being made available to school districts and charter schools across the county to pick up and distribute to their students and staff. 

As with the testing kits, districts and schools will have the discretion to determine how best to manage and dispense their available supplies. 

N95 masks are tight-fitting respirators that, when used properly, filter out at least 95 percent of particles in the air, including large and small particles. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they offer wearers a level of protection against COVID-19 that is heightened when compared to cloth face coverings or surgical masks.

Face coverings have been a requirement this school year for students and staff who are indoors on school campuses. Moreover, state health officials in December reinstated a broad mask mandate for all indoor public settings, regardless of vaccination status. But the type of mask remains an individual preference as long as it effectively covers the mouth and nose.

While public health experts recommend N95 masks, they remain a voluntary option. Moreover, they are not compatible with younger children based on their size, and they may not achieve a proper fit for users with facial hair.

OCDE has been notified that a smaller shipment of child-size masks is also expected as soon as this weekend.

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Updated at 9:37 a.m. on Jan. 15, 2022

Updated county health order sets guidance for school quarantines, contact tracing

The OC Health Care Agency issued an updated health order on Friday evening reflecting recent changes to the state’s guidance for quarantines, isolation and contact tracing at schools.

In alignment with this week’s recommendations from the California Department of Public Health, the order says schools and districts may choose between two response models for students who have been exposed to COVID-19.

Under the first model, exposed TK-12 students in both private and public school settings would follow standard isolation and self-quarantine protocols. This includes a modified quarantine option to continue in-person instruction if both students were wearing masks and the exposed student does not develop symptoms, continues to wear a well-fitting mask, undergoes COVID-19 testing at least twice during the five-day quarantine period, and refrains from extracurricular activities, including sports.

A second model allows for a group-tracing approach, mirroring the state’s recently revised guidance. Under this option, a cohort of students who spent more than 15 minutes over a 24-hour period in the same indoor airspace with someone who had COVID-19 — a class or a club, for example — would be subject to notification, regardless of each student’s vaccination status. The communication to families would have to include specific information, including the option to continue attending school as long as they are free of any symptoms, as well as a recommendation to undergo testing three to five days after their most recent exposure.

“In the event of wide-scale and or repeated exposures, broader (grade-wide or campus-wide) once weekly testing for COVID-19 may be chosen in lieu of group notification until such time as exposure events become less frequent,” the county order states.

You can review the latest OC Health Officer’s Orders and Recommendations at: https://occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/article/oc-health-officers-orders-recommendations

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Updated at 8:32 a.m. on Jan. 13, 2022

State releases updated K-12 guidance with revised recommendations for quarantines, contact tracing

The California Department of Public Health updated its COVID-19 guidance for K-12 schools late Wednesday with revised quarantine recommendations and a modified approach to contact tracing.

The guidance, which became effective immediately, runs similar to the health order recently issued by the Orange County Health Care Agency. Here are a few early takeaways:

If a student who has completed the primary series of COVID-19 vaccines — or was previously infected within the last 90 days and has a lab-confirmed test — comes into contact with another student who has COVID-19, quarantine is not recommended, meaning they can participate in all school activities. If symptoms develop, they should test and stay home. In the event of a close contact with a student who has not completed the primary series of COVID-19 vaccines and wasn’t previously infected within the last 90 days, the guidance says the student can attend school on a modified quarantine as long as both parties were wearing masks at the time of exposure. The exposed student must be asymptomatic, continue to mask up, undergo at least twice-weekly testing during their quarantine period, and forgo all school-based extracurricular activities, including sports and activities within the community setting. In cases where both students weren’t wearing masks, or if the infected individual was not wearing a mask, a standard quarantine is required, but it can end after day five if symptoms aren’t present and the student is tested on or after day five with a negative result. If the student is unable to test, or chooses not to test, the quarantine can end after day 10 as long as there are no symptoms. Noting “the shorter incubation period and increased transmissibility of variants” in California, the CDPH says an alternative approach to contact tracing may also be warranted. Rather than working to identify individual close contacts — the state acknowledges this can often be protracted — schools can send notification letters to those who spent a cumulative total of 15 minutes within a 24-hour time period in a shared indoor airspace with a contagious person. For example, if a 10th-grade student were diagnosed with COVID-19, the school would notify groups the student interacted with, which would likely include those who are in the same classes or on the same sports teams or clubs. This group-approach to notifications is a departure from contact tracing that targeted specific individuals and interactions.  Based on the criteria above, students exposed within a larger group setting should get tested for COVID-19 with at least one diagnostic test obtained within three to five days after their last exposure, regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status or any prior infections. Exposed students who participate in testing may continue to take part in all aspects of K-12 schooling, including sports and extracurricular activities, unless they develop symptoms or test positive for COVID-19. ”In the event of wide-scale and/or repeated exposures, broader (e.g., grade-wide or campus-wide) once weekly testing for COVID-19 may be considered until such time that exposure events become less frequent,” the CDPH says.

Previous directives, including guidelines for masking, ventilation and hygiene, remain in effect and can be found in the latest COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 Schools release.

State health officials noted that California’s multi-layered approach to COVID-19 mitigation have proven to be effective.

“These other layers — such as receiving COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters, wearing high-quality well-fitting masks, staying home and testing if symptomatic, and improving indoor air quality — remain crucial to school-based mitigation efforts,” the CDPH said.

For additional state resources, visit California’s Safe Schools for All Hub. For information about case counts, vaccines and testing specific to Orange County, visit ochealthinfo.com/covid.

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Updated at 10:10 a.m. on Jan. 12, 2022

Gov. Newsom signs executive order to address staffing shortages in California schools

Gov. Gavin Newsom this week signed an executive order aimed at giving schools more flexibility when it comes to short-term staffing for in-person learning.

The order, which takes effect immediately and expires on Mar. 31, will make it easier for schools and districts to hire and extend assignments to substitute teachers, while also eliminating hurdles retired teachers may face while returning to classrooms, according to the state.

“Schools nationwide returning from winter break are experiencing short-term staffing shortages that are putting a strain on operations,” Gov. Newsom said in a news release issued Tuesday. “We’re working closely with local education officials to cut red tape to allow qualified substitute teachers to help maintain safe learning environments. We are grateful for the thousands of dedicated teachers, classified staff and administrators who have worked tirelessly to provide safe learning environments for all of California’s students.”

Only schools that can prove these flexibilities will support in-person learning for students will qualify, the state said. This means that these flexibilities only apply to a school district, county office of education or charter school if school or district administrators make a written finding that the temporary flexibility will provide the support needed to maintain in-person instruction.

In related news, OCDE has asked about 100 managers within its Educational Services division to help provide support to local schools experiencing staffing shortages. Their roles could include working in classrooms, assisting with contact tracing or performing other duties necessary for school operations.

Separately, the state also indicated it will ship out personal protective equipment to school communities through county offices of education, including supplies of N95 masks.

The full order can be found on the Governor’s website.

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Updated at 9:56 a.m. on Jan. 11, 2022

More at-home COVID-19 testing kits from state arrive at OCDE for distribution to students

A new shipment of at-home COVID-19 antigen tests arrived Tuesday at OCDE for distribution to local schools.

Two trucks dispatched by the California Department of Public Health delivered 256,420 iHealth COVID-19 Antigen Rapid Test kits as part of the state’s winter push to get COVID-19 tests into the home of every public school student. 

Representatives from Orange County’s 28 independent school districts and dozens of charter schools were contacted Tuesday and told the supplies were ready to be picked up. Each district and charter school has determined its own process for distributing their testing kits to local families.

Last week, more than 191,000 On/Go antigen test kits were delivered by CDPH, covering about 40 percent of Orange County’s public school students. The new shipments are expected to fulfill the state’s commitment to provide at least one test for every public school student.

Separately, the state has also indicated it will ship out personal protective equipment to school communities through county offices of education, including supplies of N95 masks.

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Updated at 1:53 p.m. on Jan. 7, 2022

OC Health Care Agency confirms pediatric death, urges preventive measures as case counts rise

With case counts spiking to levels previously unseen, the OC Health Care Agency this week confirmed Orange County’s third COVID-related pediatric death. 

The agency said a child under the age of 5 died in December of complications related to a COVID-19 infection.

“We have lost another precious young life to this terrible virus,” said HCA Director and County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau. “It is our third pediatric death in Orange County since the start of the pandemic. This is yet another somber reminder that we must continue to do everything we can to protect our loved ones, especially our little ones under 5 years of age who are not able to be vaccinated.”

Between Dec. 30 and Jan. 5, the county’s seven-day average case rate jumped from 25.5 to 67.5 per 100,000 people, and the average number of daily COVID-19 cases rose from 822 to 2,179, according to the HCA.

Fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant, the positivity rate also increased from 6.5 to 16.2 percent, hospitalizations rose from 453 to 673, and ICU admissions were up to 114 per day. The HCA noted that 87 percent of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

Levels OC hasn’t seen

“COVID-19 has been spreading very quickly,” said Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, deputy county health officer. “Cases are reaching levels that we haven’t seen throughout this pandemic.” 

The most important step local residents can take, she said, is to “get vaccinated and boosted to maximize your immunity to COVID-19 and reduce your chance of getting severely infected.”

The HCA is further advising getting tested 24 hours before — and three to five days after — gathering or traveling. 

Self-collection, at-home COVID-19 test kits are available at no cost to people who work or live in Orange County. They can be ordered online at ochealthinfo.com/covidtest. An email address is required for each individual requesting a test kit, which includes a prepaid shipping return label. Results are provided within 24 to 48 hours upon receipt of the specimen. 

Health officials stressed that people without symptoms, or who have mild symptoms and are at low risk of severe disease, should not go to the hospital or emergency room to obtain screening testing. Hospitals are focused on people who are sick and need urgent care.

Other developments

California has extended its indoor mask mandate to Feb. 15. The state announced the mandate for all indoor public settings last month, regardless of vaccination status. It was originally set to expire on Jan. 15. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded booster shot eligibility to include children ages 12 to 17. Currently, only the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is authorized and recommended for that age group. The CDC is also recommending a Pfizer-BioNTech booster five months (rather than six) after individuals receive their primary two doses of the vaccine. Moreover, the CDC says moderately or severely immunocompromised 5-to-11-year-olds should receive an additional primary dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine 28 days after their second shot.

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Updated at 2:14 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2022

State health officials issue new guidance for large events; test kits are picked up by OC districts

New guidance from the California Department of Public Health will lower the threshold for what’s considered a “Mega Event,” a designation that triggers added safety protocols.

Starting Jan. 15, a Mega Event will be defined as a gathering or activity that draws more than 500 attendees indoors or 5,000 attendees outdoors, according to CDPH guidance posted on Dec. 31.

The older definition, which expires on Jan. 14, set the bar at more than 1,000 guests for indoor events and 10,000 or more outdoor attendees.

For indoor Mega Events, such as conventions, conferences and sporting events, attendees must show verification of fully vaccinated status or a negative COVID-19 test result before they enter, and all guests must adhere to the latest CDPH guidance for face coverings.

For outdoor Mega Events like food festivals, outside concerts and parades, verification of fully vaccinated status or a pre-entry negative COVID test result is strongly recommended for attendees, who must also comply with California’s mask mandates.

Under the new guidance that takes effect Jan. 15, safety measures must be well-publicized in all event communications — including the reservation and ticketing systems — to ensure guests are aware of testing and vaccination requirements in advance.

Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, the statewide seven-day average case rate for COVID-19 increased by 410 percent, and the number of hospitalized patients increased 63 percent, according to the CDPH.

“Ongoing vigilance is necessary to protect against COVID-19,” the CDPH guidance says. “This continues to be the case for large, indoor events, which have the potential to cause large, substantial, and severe outbreaks.”

The latest Mega Event guidance can be found on the California Department of Public Health website.

Other developments on Thursday:

School districts across Orange County continued to pick up thousands of in-home COVID-19 tests from OCDE for distribution to their local families. On Wednesday, more than 191,000 rapid antigen test kits were delivered by the California Department of Public Health as part an ambitious statewide program intended to get COVID-19 tests into the homes of students at the start of the new semester. While the state’s first shipment will only cover about 40 percent of OC’s public school students, officials have indicated additional supplies are coming. Based on 2020-21 enrollment data, Orange County will need 456,572 testing kits to guarantee one for every public school student.

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Updated at 1:48 p.m. on Jan. 5, 2022

First shipments of at-home test kits for students arrive in OC

Fork lift carries pallet

Three large trucks carrying COVID-19 rapid antigen tests from the California Department of Public Health arrived at OCDE’s offices on Wednesday morning, but additional shipments will be needed to cover all Orange County students.

With supplies said to be based on 2020-21 enrollment data, the state indicated it would provide 456,572 rapid antigen testing kits to distribute to OC families as part of a program aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 on campuses as students returned from winter break. 

On Wednesday, only 191,376 testing kits were delivered for the county — or about 42 percent of what’s expected.

OCDE was following up with state health officials to determine why it received less than half of the kits that were committed and when additional shipments will arrive. Meanwhile, as some other counties reported similar issues, department staff were working to get available tests out to local districts and schools as quickly as possible, revising immediate allocations based on the inventory on hand.

OCDE will notify districts and schools when additional kits are secured.

The “On/Go COVID-19 Antigen Self-Test” kits delivered by the CDPH contain two tests each, but the individual tests inside are not intended to be unpackaged and distributed separately. Instead, every box of two tests is designed to be used by one student under the supervision of a family member, allowing for two tests to be taken by a single child within the span of several days.

Local schools and districts will notify their families when student testing kits are ready to be picked up.

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Updated at 9:04 a.m. on Jan. 5, 2022

Some OC students may only need to isolate for 5 days after testing positive. Here’s why.

There have been some questions about ​​local, state and federal quarantine and isolation guidelines — and which rules apply to local schools.

On Dec. 31, the Orange County Health Care Agency released the County of Orange Health Officer’s Orders and Strong Recommendations, reflecting recent changes made by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health. The order was revised slightly on Jan. 4.

The biggest takeaway is that isolation timelines have been reduced for some individuals to five days in alignment with the CDC’s recommendations. This also applies to K-12 students when certain conditions are met.

Here are a few highlights from the county order:

Those who have tested positive for COVID-19 may self-isolate for five days and return to work or school if symptoms have improved, they’ve had no fever for 24 hours, and they have a negative COVID-19 test (antigen is preferred) on or after day five.  If the person does not test, the isolation period is 10 days. Students in both private and public transitional kindergarten through grade 12 shall follow the same isolation and self-quarantine protocols, with the following exemption:
Modified Quarantine. If a student who is “not up-to-date” on their COVID-19 vaccine — more on that definition below — is exposed to a person with COVID-19 and both were wearing face coverings, the exposed student may continue to attend school for in-person instruction during the duration of their quarantine period if the following conditions are met:The exposed student is asymptomatic; ANDThe exposed student continues to appropriately wear a well-fitting face covering; ANDThe exposed student undergoes testing at least twice during their quarantine period of five days; ANDThe exposed student refrains from participation in all extracurricular activities at school, including sports, and activities within the community setting for the duration of their quarantine period. The exposed student may participate in all required instructional components of the school day, except activities where a mask cannot be worn, such as while playing certain musical instruments. The exposed student may also eat meals on campus.
Note: If an exposed student who is not up to date on their COVID-19 vaccine is either unable to test or chooses not to test, they shall quarantine for 10 days after their most recent exposure. The HCA says anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 should continue to wear a well-fitting mask around other people through at least day 10.

The county order says individuals are considered up-to-date with their COVID-19 vaccination if they have completed a primary series of COVID-19 vaccine and have either received a booster shot or are not yet recommended to receive a booster dose based on current CDC guidance.

The full county order can be found here: https://occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/article/oc-health-officers-orders-recommendations

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Updated at 2:32 p.m. on Jan. 2, 2022

Here’s what OC schools are doing as students return from winter break

With most students set to return from winter break on Monday amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, OC schools are taking a number of steps to reduce on-campus transmission, from enforcing state mask mandates and quarantine protocols to tracking new cases and reporting close contacts.

As we’ve shared previously, public schools are also expecting to receive from the state as many as two COVID-19 rapid antigen tests for every student. The idea is that families will be given the chance to pick up the kits and test their children at home. As of Sunday afternoon, supplies were said to be en route to the Orange County Department of Education, where they’ll be sorted and collected by district staff.

Locally elected school boards and district superintendents are responsible for approving and implementing school safety plans with input from their stakeholders, so specific measures may vary from district to district. But all plans must meet or exceed standards set by the California Department of Public Health and the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Here’s what the CDPH and the HCA require coming out of the winter break:

Face coverings must be worn by all students and staff while they’re indoors at school. Masks are not required outdoors, but they are encouraged. Physical distancing is encouraged but not required based on campus space limitations. All school employees must show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or get tested on a weekly basis.  Following close contacts, quarantines — or modified quarantines — will vary based on vaccination status and whether one or both parties is wearing a mask. Updated details can be found in the County Health Officer’s latest order, which was published Dec. 31 and revised Jan. 4. Gov. Gavin Newsom has also announced a phased approach for adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for K-12 students. That timeline is set to begin after federal authorities grant full approval for doses to younger age groups.

“As we anticipated, Orange County COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising steeply due to increased gatherings and traveling over the holidays,” Dr. Clayton Chau, the county health officer and HCA director, said in a statement on Dec. 30. 

“The risk of catching and spreading COVID-19 is extremely high during this time as more people are in close contact with one another,” Dr. Chau said. “We ask that you please continue to exercise precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including limiting or avoid gathering with others if possible. As always, get vaccinated, get boosted, get tested if you experience symptoms or three to five days after becoming exposed, wear your mask indoors, and stay home if you are sick.”

For more information about case counts, vaccines and testing in Orange County, visit ochealthinfo.com/covid.

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COVID-19 updates from 2021

COVID-19 updates from 2020