Breanna Reeves | IE Voice
As students across California return to the classroom following winter vacation, the rapid spread of the Omicron variant continues to put a strain on testing resources, hospitals and schools.
On January 11, Kim Saruwatari, Director of Riverside University Health System (RUHS) Public Health, delivered a weekly Covid-19 county update. As of January 10, Riverside County experienced sharp increases across case rates, positivity rates and hospitalizations.
What the numbers show
The data showed that the case rate in Riverside County is up to 103 cases per 100,000 people, a rate that is similar to the state’s rate of 108 cases per 100,000. Riverside County reports a total number of 418,479 Covid-19 cases with 901 hospitalizations (including 139 ICU cases).
“I will just mention we do think this is a fairly large underestimation of the number of cases that are occurring around the county, one, because people don’t get tested or two, because they’re using antigen tests that don’t always get reported to us,” Saruwatari added.
How local schools are coping
Students across Riverside County returned to class between January 3 and January 10 depending on the district. RUHS reported that in the first 10 days of January, 20 outbreaks (three or more Covid-19 cases) had been reported at schools. In December, 76 outbreaks were reported in schools.
School districts encourage parents to take safety measures by taking their children’s temperatures before coming to school and schools host free testing on site. Difficulty acquiring at-home test kits has been an issue plaguing many Californians across the state, which prompted Governor Gavin Newsom to increase access to testing by making at-home testing kits available to K-12 public schools before they returned to the classroom from winter break.
However, some districts like the San Bernardino City Unified School District (SBCUSD) received the testing kits later than expected. Ginger Ontiveros, Chief Communications & Community Engagement Officer for SBCUSD, explained that the test kits arrived after students had already returned to school.
As required by the state of California, teachers, staff and faculty at schools are required to be vaccinated or tested weekly, but students are not required to be vaccinated or tested. The city offers free testing at school sites for students and previously provided test kits for students.
“In San Bernardino City, we do provide testing at every single one of our school sites. And we have just yesterday received our supply of test kits that the governor promised before the return to school. They didn’t quite get here in time,” Ontiveros explained. “So, we are talking about what is the best and highest use of those.”
San Bernardino County Public Health tracks Covid-19 cases and outbreaks across school districts in the county via the Covid-19 Dashboard. San Bernardino County reports 429, 970 confirmed Covid-19 cases as of January 12.
Ontiveros explained that the district has experienced higher absences of employees and students, but they have been able to maintain all classes and fill vacancies through substitution processes. The district has a virtual academy option for students who are enrolled in independent study and allows students to learn remotely.
“We completely understand the concern that parents have about Covid-19 and we share their concerns. We absolutely care about their children and their families’ safety and take that very seriously in the protocols that we’ve put in place. We’re in a better place than many districts across the state because of our partnership — we have a Covid liaison in every school,” Ontiveros said.
According to a statement posted by SBCUSD Superintendent Doc Ervin, “The Covid-19 liaison program that our families have come to know and trust, which places medically supervised personnel in every SBCUSD school and is the only one of its kind in the Inland region, will kick off again Monday when students and staff return. The goal of our liaisons is to quickly identify Covid-19 cases among our students and staff through free, on-campus testing and contact tracing so we can stop COVID-19 from spreading while providing families with vital information and resources to help ease any challenges that may result from the diagnosis.”
In addition to increased testing, health experts encourage people to get vaccinated to increase their chances of survival as Omicron is more contagious than previous variants.
During the Riverside County Board Meeting, Saruwatari discussed “R-effective” which is a measure of how many people get infected from every positive case of Covid-19. For the state of California, one Covid-positive individual can spread the disease to about one and a half people. In Riverside County, one Covid-positive individual is likely to spread the virus to two other individuals, which contributes to the increase in cases, according to Saruwatari.
“What we know is that if you are vaccinated, you have about a one in a hundred chance of getting Covid,” said Saruwatari. “If you are unvaccinated, you have about a one in four chance of getting Covid.”