WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — As COVID-19 cases climb in local schools, Palm Beach County's top health official on Tuesday said the process of contact tracing and quarantining students is "working really well."
According to the 10 p.m. update from the School District of Palm Beach County, there have been 672 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in schools since Aug. 10, including 577 students and 95 employees.
Through Monday, 1,412 students have been told to stay at home because of possible exposure to the virus.
The school district puts students and staff members on a "stay-home directive" if it's determined they may have come in contact with someone infected with COVID-19.
The Florida Department of Health will then conduct contract tracing to determine who was exposed and who will need to stay in quarantine.
Palm Beach County health director Dr. Alina Alonso said Tuesday that a dedicated team is contact tracing on a daily basis, and roughly 65 additional contact tracers are being brought in to deal with the increase in cases.
When the health department is notified of a positive COVID-19 case in a school, medical professionals immediately start contact tracing to find out who the child was around, what type of setting it was, and whether they went to multiple classrooms.
"Just because one person in a classroom is positive does not mean that everybody goes home," Alonso said. "People become very anxious when they find out that one child in their classroom is positive."
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Alonso added that, in most cases, vaccinated students will not be ordered to stay at home. Many parents have given their child's school a record of their COVID-19 vaccination.
"The idea is to get all the vaccinated kids either not have to leave the school that day, or be able to come back the very next day," Alonso said.
Currently, only children 12 and older are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Alonso suspects the vaccine won't be approved for children younger than that until late in the year.
According to the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Health, 240,716 children under 12 have contracted COVID-19 in the Sunshine State since the pandemic began last year.
Data from recent weeks shows that unvaccinated children and younger adults account for 98% of COVID-19 hospitalizations.
"We are seeing children in the ICU now that we did not see before. Larger numbers of children and young adults coming into the hospitals," Alonso said.
If your child isn't old enough to receive the vaccine, Alonso is urging any adults around that child to be vaccinated, as that allows the younger, more vulnerable populations to be better protected.
"Please, get vaccinated for you, your family, and for the whole community, and for the whole medical system that's being stressed out to the max right now," Alonso said.
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Alonso said many of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Palm Beach County schools are among students who had already tested positive before the new academic year began on Aug. 10, but are still counted as a confirmed case by the school district.
"The thought of these number of cases continuing to go up and the spread in the school is something that we're trying to control very, very closely by really dedicating time and effort to make sure that we can do all the screening and all the medical information as quickly as possible," Alonso said.
Face masks are mandatory for all students and staff members inside Palm Beach County public schools and on school district transportation. However, parents can opt their children out of wearing facial coverings and the number has grown to 9,866, which represents 6% of the total student population.
According to St. Lucie Public Schools, there have been 188 confirmed cases in schools, including 132 students and 56 employees.
The Martin County School District has had 52 cases (36 students, 16 employees), the School District of Indian River County has had 34 cases, and the Okeechobee County School District has had 61 cases (23 students, 38 employees) since the 2021/22 academic year started last week.