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Without Masks, More LA Students Test Positive As School Outbreaks Triple

An image of a desk topped with with books, colored pencils, an apple and blocks that spell out A-B-C.
COVID-19 cases have seen a recent rise at area schools.
(Element5 Digital
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via Unsplash)
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Coronavirus outbreaks more than tripled in the past 10 days in Los Angeles schools. Twelve elementary school and two high school outbreaks were reported in the week ending April 5. Health officials link the increase of infected children to the rise of the highly transmissible BA.2 subvariant and the decision to drop masking and stringent quarantine restrictions.

“We're seeing similar numbers of outbreaks to what we experienced during the omicron surge," County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said at a press conference Thursday. "Furthermore, we're seeing a higher number of cases associated with the recent outbreaks.”

In just one day, six schools reported three or more potentially linked cases.

A line graph showing school outbreaks increasing since March 29, 2022.
Courtesy of the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health)
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“The increase in outbreaks likely reflects increased circulation of the more easily-transmitted BA.2 variant, the lifting of indoor masking requirements at schools, as well as the change in the state's quarantine guidance that no longer requires asymptomatic students remaining in school during their quarantine period to wear masks and be tested,” Ferrer said.

Most of the schools had fewer than 10 infections among students and staff reported, but Los Angeles Center For Enriched Studies, a magnet school in the mid-city area, reported 60 infected students so far, as well as three staff members.

Data from the L.A. County Public Health Dept. shows the highest number of student cases in the recent outbreaks were at Occidental College's off-campus student residential housing, where 88 students have contracted the virus.

The sharp rise in school outbreaks comes less than two weeks after many area school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, lifted the requirement that students wear a mask indoors.

“There is now more transmission that happens in schools than happened in the past … I know people hate those masks, but those masks really help keep transmission in those classrooms low particularly because in some of our schools, the ventilation systems are less than perfect,” Ferrer said.

At the same time, BA.2 — the highly contagious omicron subvariant — is infecting more people in L.A. County. Health officials say it now makes up 46% of recent genetically-sequenced tests — and that's likely an undercount.

A slide showing health officials recommend masking in schools
Courtesy of the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health)

“Since these data represent sequencing results for specimens that were collected more than two weeks ago, we're pretty confident that this likely underestimates the proportion of COVID-19 cases that BA.2 accounts for … It's very likely that BA.2 is now the predominant variant in L.A. County,” Ferrer said.

Nationwide, data from the CDC show BA.2 caused three out of every four cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. last week.

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“Cases were declining until late March when they leveled off and then began increasing in April. And it's important to note that with the increased accessibility of home kits, the test results that are reported to public health and shared with everyone are now an undercount of all of our positive cases,” Ferrer said.

Case numbers have increased about 33%. The average number of daily new cases reported over the past seven days increased to 878 new cases, compared with an average of 660 new daily cases the prior week.

Despite the rise of BA.2, L.A. County’s current Centers for Disease Control Community Level remains low. In total, 1,088 new cases and 15 deaths were reported Thursday. There are 273 people with COVID-19 currently hospitalized, and the county’s positivity rate ticked up slightly to 1%.

Since the pandemic began, 11 children in L.A. County have died from COVID-19, and there have been more than 500,000 infections in children 17 and younger.

What questions do you have about the pandemic and health care?
Jackie Fortiér helps Southern Californians understand the pandemic by identifying what's working and what's not in our health response.