Doctor calls for vigilance in schools after 'explosion' in COVID cases

March 15, 2021
Girl wearing a mask plays with blocks.
Mitchell Elementary School student Eulalie Harper wears a mask as she plays with blocks. Photo provided

While many adults, including teachers, are now getting vaccinated, schools in Charleston County dealt with a dramatically higher number of COVID-19 cases in the first two months of the new year. That’s according to an MUSC Children’s Health infectious disease pediatrician who’s working with the district to try to slow the virus’ spread.

“The case numbers really skyrocketed across the Charleston County School District,” said Allison Eckard, M.D. She’s part of the MUSC Health Back2Business team, which helps organizations operate as safely as possible during the pandemic.

Dr. Allison Eckard 
Dr. Allison Eckard

In January and February of 2021, Eckard said a total of about 800 students attending school in person and 360 staff members in Charleston County schools tested positive for COVID-19. 

Compare that to the three-month period of Sept. 8 through Dec. 12, when a much smaller total of about 300 students and 200 staff got COVID.

“A lot of the increase in 2021 is reflective of people's decisions to have extended family gatherings and attend parties over the holidays, because our numbers have gone down since then, but they're still very high,” Eckard said.

From March 1 through March 11, about 100 in-person students and 20 staff tested positive for COVID-19. Last week, the district announced that a spike in cases will force a Mount Pleasant high school to go completely virtual for a week.

Eckard’s previous research, focusing on September through December, found that in-person public school was not driving a surge in cases as many people feared. Only about 1% of students and staff in Charleston County public school tested positive during that time.

Back2Business team members Heather Toeppner and Regina Freiya talk with Jeff Borowy of the Charleston County School District. 
MUSC Health has been working with Charleston County schools since early in the pandemic. Here, Heather Toeppner, left, and Regina Fraiya of the Back2Business team talk with Charleston County School District chief operating officer Jeff Borowy last summer about safe spacing in a classroom. Photo by Sarah Pack

But the new year is showing the threat is far from over. "There may well be more classroom acquisition now than before, especially if people aren't being as careful at school as they had been, while at the same time, families are allowing their children to participate in more high-risk activities outside of school. People are tired of the pandemic. I get it,” Eckard said.

“But this is not the time to back down on risk mitigation or become lax with what you're doing at home or in the classroom. People are going to end up being their own worst enemies, and they could be forced to temporarily close more schools,even if a lot of this was acquired outside of the classroom, just because of the sheer number of cases.”

Eckard said it’s important to try to avoid that. “Children are suffering greatly from this pandemic. They tend to have mild cases of COVID, but they're affected so negatively in other ways like social isolation and a disruption of their normal lives.”

And not just in a minor, passing way. The number of kids visiting the emergency department for mental health help at MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital has soared during the pandemic. That’s why Eckard recently launched a series of presentations, available to the public, called “COVID-19 and Collateral Damage.” The focus is on issues that the pandemic has either brought to light or outright caused, from mental health problems to substance abuse to virtual learning. 

Eckard encourages families, students and teachers to stick with pandemic precautions through the rest of the school year. “Everybody keeps saying, ‘Oh, well, now that teachers are being vaccinated, we can relax.’ But we’re months away from being able to relax risk mitigation in schools. Keep in mind the teachers are the only ones being vaccinated. There are very few children who are eligible, and many high-risk individuals in our community are still waiting to be vaccinated because our current vaccine demand is far greater than our supply.”

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