Children and teens are making up a larger proportion of people who have recently contracted COVID-19 in Yakima County. School staff and health officials have also noticed an increase in the demand for testing for school-age kids.

During a Wednesday meeting of the Yakima County Health District, Chief Operating Officer Ryan Ibach said that in the previous two weeks, school-age children made up about a quarter of all COVID cases in the county. That’s up significantly from earlier in the pandemic, when children and teens generally made up around 13% to 17% of cases, he said in an interview.

Lower grades where no students are eligible for COVID vaccinations are being hit particularly hard. Grades kindergarten through five accounted for about 40% of cases in schools in the past two weeks. Cases used to be more randomly dispersed across the grades, Ibach said in the Sept. 29 meeting.

In the Yakima School District, the county’s largest, elementary school students make up the majority of those in quarantine, according to its online data dashboard.

“The delta variant is affecting a lot younger populations, or we’re seeing more of the younger populations hospitalized and getting COVID,” Ibach said in an interview.

Record for hospitalizations

The county recently broke its record for the greatest number of people 19 years old or younger hospitalized, county Director of Disease Control Melissa Sixberry said in a recent health district meeting.

In September, 13 children and teenagers were hospitalized, surpassing the previous record of six in July 2020, according to health district data. In total, over 200 people were hospitalized due to COVID-19 in Yakima County in September.

Since the start of the 2021-22 school year, over 600 students and staff in districts across the county have tested positive for COVID-19, according to data from the Yakima County Health District. The vast majority of those cases involved people who were exposed to the virus outside of school. Seven classrooms have had to temporarily close this school year.

Amy Norton is director of health services for the Yakima School District and a member of its COVID response team. She said that this school year, case numbers and transmission rates are higher, partly due to the delta variant.

She also said it is taking longer to screen for symptoms and more people have to be notified in contact tracing efforts.

“It’s very, very labor- and manpower-intensive to deal with COVID right now,” Norton said.

Ibach said the demand for testing of people under age 18 has increased since the start of the school year.

Parents looking to get their students tested for COVID have a number of options. The county operates free community testing sites at Yakima Valley College and Sunnyside Community Center. A full list of testing sites is available online.

Though tests are in high demand, Ibach said the county-run sites have not had trouble keeping COVID tests in stock.

Some school districts are offering onsite testing for people exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.

Rapid tests

In the Yakima School District, rapid tests are available at the district’s central office for students and staff, as well as their family members. Tests are offered five days a week in the afternoons. Appointments are available, but not required. Because they use rapid tests, results are available generally within 20 minutes, Norton said.

“We’re actually really proud of the system that we have in place right now,” she said.

Norton has also noticed an increased demand for tests this school year.

The Yakima district recently expanded its onsite testing, Norton said. Once a week, contracted employees go to each district building to perform screening tests on students whose parents gave permission.

The district also has at-home tests

available for employees, she said.

Norton said the district partnered with BD Veritor for its testing and they have not experienced issues getting an adequate number of tests.

The Selah School District also offers onsite testing at its middle and high school, said Betty Lopez, the district’s executive director of special education.

“That tends to be where we’re seeing the need,” she said.

Lopez said that the district recently secured a grant from the state Department of Health that will allow Selah to bring on additional health staff and expand its testing sites. Currently, the tests are being administered by health aides, who work under the district’s nurses.

The Union Gap School District also offers onsite COVID testing for students, according to its website. East Valley School District will begin offering at-school testing for students and staff starting Monday, its website reports.

A plethora of guidelines

Schools have to follow updated guidelines this academic year when dealing with cases of COVID-19 among students and staff.

According to the K-12 requirements from the Washington State Department of Health, any students or staff who show symptoms of COVID-19 must immediately be isolated from others.

People who test positive for COVID-19 must quarantine for 10 days after they first began to show symptoms or, for asymptomatic cases, since taking the COVID test. In order to return to class after the quarantine, a person’s symptoms must have improved and their fever must be gone. These rules apply to all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status.

Determining when to allow a person who was in close contact with a COVID-positive individual to return to school requires looking at a number of factors.

For schools this academic year, a close contact is defined as an adult who was within 6 feet of the COVID-positive person or a student who was within 3 feet for a total of 15 minutes or more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other factors such as whether masks were on and where the interaction took place are also considered.

In general, close contacts need to quarantine for at least 10 days after exposure.

In some cases, students who were close contacts can return to the classroom after seven days of quarantine if they do not show any symptoms and they receive a negative COVID test within 48 hours of returning.

The East Valley, Highland, Mabton, Selah, Toppenish and West Valley school districts allow for a truncated quarantine period, according to their websites and social media pages.

In the Yakima School District, close contacts must remain in quarantine for 10 days, YSD Health Director Norton said. The district also requires all close contacts to quarantine, regardless of vaccination status.

“We’re really trying to limit the transmission in our schools, so we’re holding firm to that 10-day quarantine for close contacts,” Norton said.

The state DOH guidelines allow for people who are fully vaccinated or who recovered from COVID in the last three months to skip quarantine. But that decision is ultimately up to local health authorities.

To make things a bit easier, the state DOH has an online calculator to help determine the length of quarantine.

Ibach said that parents of school-age children can help by keeping them at home when they are sick, as well as continuing to follow other public health guidelines.

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