CDC offers steps for reopening schools amid COVID-19

Schoolgirl wearing mask writing on whiteboard
Schoolgirl wearing mask writing on whiteboard

Ridofranz / iStock

As some school districts across the country are approaching 1 year of being closed to in-person learning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today issued a new operational strategy to help schools across the country reopen safely.

"We wanted to provide a one-stop shop for schools," said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, during a press conference introducing the strategy. "But let me be clear, the CDC is not mandating schools reopen."

Layered mitigation strategies

The cornerstone of any reopening should be universal masking for all students, teachers, and staff, she said, followed by "podding," or cohorting, students into small groups that stay together throughout the day—ideally 6 feet apart or "to the greatest extent possible," Walensky said.

Other layered mitigation strategies, including testing, cleaning, and contact tracing, can also help limit the spread in schools, she added.

Walensky said the science shows that less than 10% of all COVID-19 cases in the United States have been in children aged 5 to 17, and schools have not contributed to community spread of the disease during the pandemic. Moreover, breaches in mitigation strategies, especially mask use, have been noted when school cases have occurred.

"Evidence suggests that staff-to-staff transmission is more common than transmission from students to staff, staff to student, or student to student," the CDC said in their new guidance.

Despite the promising evidence that school children do not contribute greatly to case counts, Walensky said most counties in the country are still seeing high levels of community transmission. In these communities, elementary schools could open, at least partially.

Pharmacies start distributing vaccines

Today, major commercial pharmacies across the country, including Walgreen's, Rite Aid, and CVS, started to distribute their first 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, part of a federal program meant to increase access to the shots.

The Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which currently includes 6,500 pharmacies, is expected to ramp up in the coming weeks. States will issue guidance on eligibility for the vaccines.

The program starts 1 day after President Biden confirmed that his administration has secured deals for another 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, the Washington Post reports. Biden announced his plan earlier this month.

The administration says that with the additional 100 million doses from Moderna and 100 million from Pfizer, the United States will have enough vaccine doses to cover every American adult by the end of July.

"We remain in the teeth of this pandemic," Biden said during remarks at the National Institutes of Health.

Despite a significant ramp-up in recent weeks, only10% to 11% of Americans have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and January was the deadliest month of the pandemic yet for the country.

There were 103,306 new COVID-19 cases yesterday, and 3,724 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker. There are 74,225 COVID-19 patients in US hospitals, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

In total, the United States has reported 27,457,968 COVID-19 cases, including 479,842 deaths.

Airline chiefs meet White House officials

Today, chief executives of major US airlines are meeting virtually with coronavirus czar Jeff Zients to discuss how domestic travel restrictions, including requiring negative tests before boarding national flights, could be detrimental to the industry.

Travel in the United States has been down 66% during the pandemic, Reuters said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said domestic travel restrictions would be unconstitutional and unjust, and the sentiment was echoed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

In several briefings this month, Walensky has warned Americans to avoid any unnecessary travel, especially as more and more cases of COVID-19 variant strains are detected in the United States. 

New international travel limitations, including negative tests, were put in place on Jan 26 to limit the introduction of variant strains.

The CDC variant tracker today shows that 981 cases of B117, the variant first reported in the United Kingdom, have been reported in 37 states. B1351, the strain first found in South Africa, has also now been detected in the District of Columbia, Illinois, and North Carolina.

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