Pa. pushes schools to reopen; new COVID-19 variant detected in commonwealth

School hallway

(Office of Gov. Tom Wolf)

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Pennsylvania is reporting its first confirmed case of the more contagious COVID-19 strain discovered in England last month.

The case was in Dauphin County in south-central Pennsylvania. State health officials say the individual tested positive after traveling abroad, and that the person’s mild symptoms resolved while they quarantined at home.

During a virtual news conference on Thursday, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said the case was not surprising.

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“We expect to see the variant. We expect to see some more cases of the variant in Pennsylvania and the United States,” she said.

The variant, known as B117, is detected through genetic analysis.

So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found more than 50 positive cases of the coronavirus variant in states across the U.S., including California, Florida, Colorado, Georgia, and New York.

“There is no evidence at this time that it is the dominant strain in any part of the United States,” said Levine.

Health experts expect that all current lab tests will detect the variant as COVID-19 and that COVID-19 vaccines currently available will be effective against it.

Pa. pushes schools to reopen

Pennsylvania nudged school districts to reopen elementary schools Thursday by changing its official guidance.

Prior to Thursday, the Department of Education recommended that schools in counties with “substantial” COVID-19 transmission conduct all learning remotely.

They changed that guidance to say that schools in these counties could offer in-person instruction to elementary-aged students. All counties currently have “substantial” transmission, a state-established threshold that means they recorded at least 100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the preceding week.

The change in guidance will take effect at the beginning of the next semester — or around Jan. 25 — according to acting Secretary of Education, Noe Ortega.

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“Schools are going to be encouraged to allow for elementary school students to return back to campus,” Ortega said at a Thursday press briefing.

The guidance is not binding, and indeed many schools have been open for weeks or months despite substantial community transmission. But the state’s recommendations still carry weight and could influence some districts to reopen in the coming weeks.

The official recommendations say that schools can have elementary kids back so long as six feet of separation is maintained among students. The state says schools can achieve this by bringing students back for half the week or using extra buildings such as secondary schools.

The state also recommends that schools “consider” offering in-person instruction to “targeted” groups such as students learning English and students with disabilities.

State officials defended this change in guidance by referencing new research on the risks of COVID-19 and the harm inflicted on the youngest online learners.

“The research on offering in-person instruction during COVID-19 continues to emerge,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said. “While it is impossible to eliminate the risk of disease transmission entirely within a school setting where community spread is present, recent studies have shown that when mitigation efforts, such as universal masking, physical distancing, and hand hygiene are followed, it may be safer for younger children, particularly elementary grade students, to return to in-person instruction.”

New research does suggest that reopening schools in areas with moderate or low COVID transmission seems not to increase community spread. And there’s evidence that elementary-age students are less likely to transmit the virus.

That said, the research is far cloudier when it comes to opening schools in areas with significant COVID transmission.

Montco officials hoping for more vaccine doses

Nearly 900 people on Wednesday received doses of the Moderna vaccine at Montgomery County’s new mass vaccination site — the first day it was open.

The county hopes to vaccinate at least 800 people each day the clinic is open. Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the county commissioners, said Thursday the county would quickly run through its allotment of the vaccinate if it goes much beyond that total.

“And we do not have certainty about how much vaccine we are going to receive from week to week,” said Arkoosh during a virtual news conference. “We don’t want to give people appointments and then have to call them up and tell them we don’t have vaccine for them.”

For now, the vaccination site, located at Montgomery County Community College, is only serving health care workers employed in the county. The group includes 20,000 people.

The county hopes to start vaccinating essential employees, including police and firefighters, by the end of January.

“It’s all going to depend on when we get a higher volume of vaccine,” said Arkoosh. “It’s a little bit squishy in terms of these numbers, which is extremely frustrating and makes it very hard to plan.”

To date, the county has received a total of 7,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine — less than one percent of its total population. The county expects to receive about 3,000 doses a week, said Arkoosh.

The mass vaccination site opened as Montgomery County is potentially facing a second holiday-related surge in positive COVID-19 cases.

The most recent 14-day positivity rate stood at roughly 10%. Anything under 5% is considered suppression of the virus.

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