Pediatric COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Louisiana just as hundreds of thousands of children are preparing to start the 2021-22 school year. In some parts of the state, classes start as early as next week.
“We're seeing more children sick with COVID now with delta than we have at any other point in this pandemic,” Dr. Joseph Kanter, the state’s health officer, said at a press conference Friday.
Every single school district in Louisiana is planning for an in-person start to the school year and that’s unlikely to change. There is a clear consensus that face-to-face learning is best for students and is safe as long as COVID-19 guidelines are followed.
Louisiana continues to lead the country in new COVID-19 case growth per capita and the state’s fourth surge does not appear to be slowing, Kanter said. Gov. John Bel Edwards told reporters he could issue a statewide mask mandate as early as Monday.
“At this point, it's not whether we vaccinate or mask, we have to do both,” Edwards said.
Schools can assist with both measures, by encouraging or requiring students to mask up or get the COVID-19 vaccine. Absent a mandate from the governor, individual districts set their own mask policies, while vaccine requirements are determined by the state. No state currently requires eligible children to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Louisiana Department of Health recommends that all individuals 5 years and older wear a face mask inside, regardless of vaccination status. While the vast majority of the state’s 70 school districts said they are encouraging students and staff to wear masks, very few have made it a requirement.
“If you're in an indoor space right now, you need to be masking,” Kanter said. “If you're not, you're putting yourself and everyone around at risk.”
Most K-12 students are not yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and are therefore more vulnerable. Vaccination rates remain low among the youngest eligible cohort as well. Just 12 percent of children between 12 and 17 years old are currently vaccinated.
There are several reasons why delta may be “more apt to make kids sick,” Kanter said. For one, it’s more transmissible. It spreads easily among the unvaccinated and can also be spread by those who are vaccinated.
The delta variant is also more powerful. People who contract the delta variant have up to 1,000 times more virus in their body than those who contracted earlier variants, Kanter said.
In the last two days, Kanter said there have been seven new cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) among children in Louisiana — the largest number in the shortest period of time, at any point in the pandemic.
While the cause of the syndrome is unknown, “many children with MIS-C had the virus that causes COVID-19, or had been around someone with COVID-19,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I fear that we're going to see more of these [cases] in the coming weeks,” Kanter said.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued an “indoor mask advisory” before issuing a mandate Friday. The city reported close to 400 new COVID cases Friday and three new deaths. The city’s 7-day average for daily new cases is 272 and its positive test rate is 10.7 percent — an all time high for this year.
New Orleans Public Schools mandated that masks be worn inside schools after the advisory was put in place. Students are set to return to the classroom starting next Monday.