Officials in Howard County, Maryland, are encouraging parents to get eligible school-age children vaccinated against COVID-19 ahead of the school year starting later this month, saying vaccines provide the best protection even against the more infectious delta strain of the virus.
In the words of County Executive Calvin Ball, vaccines remain “our very best chance at beating this pandemic,” he said during a news conference Tuesday.
Still, Howard County — like its neighbors in Maryland and across the D.C. region — has seen a startling rise in coronavirus cases in the past month, and the head of the school system is warning that, while they hope to start on the right foot, the virus could upend business as usual.
“I’m so excited to welcome back our students for normalized instruction after nearly 18 months of not being in school at a normalized level,” said Howard County school Superintendent Michael Martirano.
Having students back in classrooms for in-person learning, he said, “is the right decision and the only decision.” He added: “However, we need to stay very aware of the risks that the virus can spread in a school, requiring students and staff to be out of the building for an extended period of time. This is particularly the case, given the spread of the delta variant.”
The school system has already announced that students, staff and visitors will be required to wear masks in school buildings regardless of a person’s vaccination status.
Martirano also urged more progress on vaccinations.
“I’m here today to encourage all parents of students who are in our school system to strongly consider the vaccine for your child,” he said.
To date, about 79% of the county’s young adults and teens have received at least one shot, according to county data presented by Ball.
Over the past month, the county has seen an increase in coronavirus cases. While the positivity rate — the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive — is still the lowest in Maryland, at 2.8%.
“Our case rates are concerning and that is driven by the delta variant,” Ball said.
Overall, the positivity rate in the county has increased by 400%, and the case rate has increased by 500%, according to Maura Rossman, the county’s health officer.
Rossman said, however, that the county remained at “moderate” levels of virus transmission. (CDC data indicates the county has already surpassed the “substantial” level at which universal masks in indoor public settings are recommended. But there appears to a discrepancy between data from the CDC and data from the Maryland Department of Health).
The county, which has about 325,000 residents, has exceptionally high vaccination rates. Overall, 86% of county residents eligible for the vaccine have already gotten at least one dose, and 70% of all residents are fully vaccinated, officials said.
However, that still means about 97,000 people — including children under 12 who aren’t yet eligible — remain unvaccinated, Rossman noted.
Regarding vaccinations of teachers, Martirano said he has made sure teachers getting vaccinated is a “top priority,” although it hasn’t been mandated.
The superintendent said a majority of teachers and staff across the school system have been vaccinated. At one point, close to 99% of staff was fully vaccinated, Martirano said, although it may have fallen as staff members have retired.
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