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As schools around Los Angeles County reopen and launch a massive coronavirus testing effort, health officials are reporting increased virus spread among unvaccinated children and more outbreaks tied to school sports.

L.A. County Health Director Barbara Ferrer called the early case data on schools “somewhat sobering.”

While coronavirus case rates amongst almost all other age groups in the county declined in recent weeks, cases among unvaccinated children rose from 73 per 100,000 in May to 307 cases per 100,000 by Aug. 14, Ferrer said in a media briefing Thursday.

And though it’s still low, the COVID-19 hospitalization rate for unvaccinated children is also much higher than “the virtually nonexistent” hospitalizations among vaccinated children, the health director said.

“We anticipate an upward trend in outbreaks as our schools have reopened, but we’re continuing to work hard to prevent investigate and manage them as they happen,” Ferrer said.

There were 3,186 new coronavirus cases reported at K-12 schools between Aug. 16 and Aug. 22, according to the county health department. Many of the cases were from the L.A. Unified School District, where children have to be tested weekly.

While the majority of schools reported just one case during that period, there were 84 LAUSD campuses and 39 other schools outside the district that reported three or more infections.

Outbreaks tied to sports

L.A. County has been seeing three outbreaks a week affecting dozens of students. Of the 14 school outbreaks reported this month, half were tied to school sports, Ferrer said.

There were nine different outbreaks among high school cheerleading and dance teams that involved 131 students between July 30 and Aug. 20, Ferrer said. All were tied to multi-day indoor camps — which took place outside L.A. County and brought together students from different schools that each abided by different masking policies, she added.

L.A. County currently has high transmission levels, putting it in a place where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools cancel or hold high-risk sports and extracurricular activities virtually unless everyone is fully vaccinated.

But that’s not what L.A. County is doing.

Instead, it’s relying on masking, quarantine and testing policies for added protection for students and staff.

Ferrer said the county is going to change its guidance to require a negative coronavirus test from all athletes and staff members within 72 hours of competitions.

The teams are already required to undergo weekly testing if they participate in moderate or high-risk sports like football, baseball, cheerleading, wrestling and soccer.

Masks are also required for all participants indoors, regardless of vaccination status. And the county has also been encouraging schools to move practices and games outdoors whenever feasible, and reduce capacity indoors.

Here's how the L.A. County Department of Public Health ranks sports by coronavirus risk level. (L.A. Public Health)
Here’s how the L.A. County Department of Public Health ranks sports by coronavirus risk level. (L.A. Public Health)

“I do join with you in wishing that it was a lot simpler, and that rules didn’t need to change, but the virus has changed, and we all need some flexibility to adapt to this more dangerous variant,” Ferrer said.

COVID infections causing absences

L.A. County has been facing calls to loosen its quarantine requirements, which are stricter than the state’s.

There have been concerns about too many students missing school.

At LAUSD, 6,500 students missed one or more days during the first week of school due to the coronavirus.

Currently, unvaccinated student who are exposed to the virus need to quarantine for 10 days, or seven days if they test negative six days after exposure and have no symptoms.  

“We’ve seen large increases in cases amongst schoolchildren since the summer. We determined in August that it was best to not modify the quarantine policy until we could look at the case and outbreak data we have for L.A. County schools,” Ferrer said. “And that’s what we’re doing now.”

As coronavirus cases spike at schools, the health department is sending out teams to schools with large outbreaks to help with managing quarantining and isolation.

The county is seeing a lot more virus transmission among children and it’s partly because they now have more contact with others as they return to school. It also comes at a time when the highly contagious delta coronavirus variant is dominant in L.A. County.

The best way to keep schools open? Get vaccinated, Ferrer said.

Currently, only children aged 12 and up can get vaccinated against COVID-19. They can head to any L.A. County or city sites to get the shot without an appointment.