Threat of delta variant lingers as more kids head back to school

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(ABC 6 News) – Many students are heading back to class with challenges none faced in years prior.

The spread of the COVID-19 delta variant means different concerns from all sides of the spectrum. From heightened risk of infections, to masking policy debates across school districts, and uncertainty with kids under 12 ineligible for the vaccine.

Health experts refer to this variant as stickier – it’s causing more cases to spread and at a faster rate. With more cases, means more hospitalizations.

The rate of infections among children are at a high but there are ways to prevent the spread using practices we’ve heard of for more than a year now.

"This thing can take off and if you’re not requiring those distancing requirements, you don’t have the fresh air exchanges, and you don’t have the masking in place, this will explode in a community," Joe Kurland said, Children’s Minnesota vaccine specialist and infection preventionist. "You’ll have a large number of people impacted right away or very quickly."

Kurland said outbreaks within schools may be inevitable but he anticipates those that require masking will see fewer cases compared to others recommending them.

He said while masking is not a perfect solution, folks may not wear them properly for instance, it can minimize the virus one is exhaling into the air and spreading.

But not everyone is in favor of masking.

Locally, Rochester Public Schools and Pine Island Public Schools recently enacted a mask requirement for staff and students, vaccinated or not, prompting pushback. In states like Iowa and Florida, their governors have enacted a ban on mask mandates for schools.

Still, Kurland said the science is there.

"If we can learn anything from the southern states, it’s that when you are in close proximity and you’re not wearing masks, this virus thrives," Kurland said.

More kids are being hospitalized in the country for COVID-19 but Kurland said the delta variant doesn’t necessarily cause cases to be more severe. When more are cases are being driven, the likelihood of severe cases or hospitalizations increase.

Early summer brought with it hope. Mask policies dropped and Memorial Day gatherings signaled America’s return to normal.

But too many Americans remained unvaccinated causing cases to surge on top of the highly transmissible delta variant now making up majority of new cases.

Kurland said the worst-case scenario is the coronavirus will mutate into a variant that wears off tthe effectiveness of the current vaccines off. The only way to prevent that he said is more vaccinations and proper safety mitigations.

"We did it last spring when we had kids in school and we can do it again this fall," Kurland said.

Vaccines for those between ages 5 to 11 could be ready by September, but for the youngest, possibly later or into next year, Kurland said.