With the coronavirus’ omicron variant likely sweeping into New Mexico, pushing average daily case numbers up to about 2,000 statewide for the last several days, education and health officials were wary Monday of the potential effects on schoolchildren.
“The omicron variant has created a highly variable, volatile situation,” Public Education Department spokeswoman Judy Robinson wrote in an email Monday, adding the state’s education and health departments “are working hard to present the best advice possible to NM schools.”
The Public Education Department is set to release updated COVID-19 guidance Thursday, following a late-December announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention it was shortening the recommended quarantine period for people who test positive — to just five days from 10. The department didn’t confirm whether it would adopt the new recommendations or share details about any other changes it might make to its COVID-19 protocols for public schools.
In the meantime, students and staff at Santa Fe Public Schools, returning to classrooms Tuesday, are still set to continue in-person learning for the foreseeable future, Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez said Monday.
“Right now, our priorities are in-person learning,” he said. “But we’re also watching the numbers to make sure we’re making a very educated decision.”
If the district turns to remote learning, he added, it likely would focus the effort on classrooms experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.
Chavez said if the state adopts the new five-day quarantine recommendation, the local district likely would follow suit.
State health officials reported 7,313 positive test results in the four-day period from Friday to Monday — an average of over 1,800 cases per day. The state’s test positivity rate jumped to 17.9 percent.
Monday’s report followed an alarming one-day count Thursday of over 2,200 newly confirmed cases.
Chavez said he is aware cases could rise in schools again, as they did amid a delta variant wave in November.
Throughout the pandemic, pediatric cases of COVID-19 have accounted for just over 18 percent of all cases in the state.
Dr. Alexandra Cvijanovich, president of the New Mexico Pediatric Society, noted kids aren’t exempt from catching omicron — and “immunization rates are still not great for teenagers and 5- to 11-year-olds.”
While 75.9 percent of adults in the state have completed their initial vaccination series, according to state data, just 57.3 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 and 17.3 percent of kids 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated.
“We know that omicron is here,” Cvijanovich said. “And we are seeing hospitalizations go up in unimmunized kids, primarily the kids under 5.”
Of the 362 children in the state hospitalized for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, more than 100 have been 4 or younger — the group not yet approved for vaccinations. A report last week from the New Mexico Department of Health said two children were hospitalized the week of Christmas.
Cvijanovich said the symptoms of the new variant — which include runny nose, chest pains and gastrointestinal issues for minors — remain milder for vaccinated kids.
She added: “I feel that parents are more hesitant to vaccinate the younger ones. I think they feel that they’re more vulnerable.”
The Food and Drug Administration on Monday approved booster shots for kids 12 to 15. The booster became eligible for 16- and 17-year-olds in the state Dec. 10.
The Health Department did not respond to a request for comment Monday on when the state might approve booster shots for kids ages 12 to 15.
At least one district in New Mexico is going remote following the winter break: Taos Municipal Schools Superintendent Lillian Torrez announced before Christmas the district would return to remote learning out of caution through Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Classes start remotely Friday for the Northern New Mexico district. Students will fully return to in-person learning Jan. 18, with an option for kids to come back to classrooms Jan. 14.
Torrez told The Taos News: “This will be the most dangerous week for this school year for COVID. … We want to be prepared.”