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Health, Science & Environment

Health officials urge caution as omicron rages and students return to schools

Photo of students in masks taking a test.
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Students are returning to class just as the omicron variant surges in Utah and across the country.

Schools are starting up this week. And once again, that’s happening in the middle of another surge in COVID cases.

Utah’s state epidemiologist Leisha Nolen said in an interview Thursday it’s likely that cases will continue to rise as students return to the classroom. And while schools are still limited by state law in what safety measures they can impose, she said some districts are working with local officials to get mask mandates in place.

“It is concerning, and we're trying to work with our health districts as much as possible to give them every option that they can legally use,” Nolen said.

Still, she acknowledged mandates have been contentious, and many districts are unlikely to impose a mask order. Currently only students in the Salt Lake City School District and schools under the Navajo Nation’s jurisdiction in the San Juan District are required to wear masks. Schools in Summit County had a mandate, but it was allowed to expire at the end of December.

Districts this year have had fewer mitigation efforts overall compared to the 2020-21 school year. That, along with more contagious variants, has led to increases in total school-associated cases. They’re about 32% higher now compared to this time last year.

Doctor Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases specialist with Intermountain Healthcare, said in a press conference Thursday that he recommends students across the state wear well-fitting masks even if they aren’t required to. He also urged districts to take safety precautions seriously.

“I would think about increasing ventilation in schools,” he said. “Yes, it's chilly, but opening windows, spacing as much as you can … all the things that we know slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2. I’d really double down on those efforts.”

Nolen said the Utah Department of Health will also be updating its guidance for schools to account for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent shift in quarantine recommendations. It said people only need to isolate for five days if they test positive for COVID-19 — rather than the previously suggested 10 — if they don’t show symptoms. That’s because people appear to get sicker and shed the infection faster with omicron, Nolen said.

“We are generally following what they've recommended,” she said. “We really want to keep kids in school as long as possible — as much as possible, but we also want to keep them safe. So [we’re] trying to make our recommendations balance those two things.”

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