Experts provide insight on omicron, boosters and schools during town hall

In the last few weeks, the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations reported in the United States have increased to record levels because of omicron, a new COVID-19 variant. Even so, the experts who joined AFT President Randi Weingarten on Jan. 11 to discuss the variant, vaccines and schools say that we have the tools we need to fight omicron.

Child getting a Covid test
iStock by Getty images/Juanmonino

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, Dr. Irwin Redlener and Dr. Vin Gupta are experts who the AFT has relied on for insight during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is why Weingarten asked them to take part in another virtual town hall during this latest surge to answer questions posed by members. 

“Omicron is the enemy. The pandemic is the enemy,” said Weingarten. Parents and teachers are frustrated about the disruptions, but healthcare workers, educators, school support staff and others have shown up to help people, she said.

“We are trying to help keep everybody safe and help find a way to have the normalcy of schools that we know our kids need,” she said, adding that the AFT is pushing back hard on the blaming and shaming of the people who have been there to help.

The shortages in schools are not because teachers don’t want to be in schools. It’s because of the increased infection rate, and with that comes the need to isolate and get better, Weingarten explained. “We should be thanking educators for their hard work,” she said.

Gupta agreed, saying that every educator that he’s talked with wants to be in school, but they also “want to make sure it’s safe not only for them and for their families, but for the families of the children they’re teaching.”

According to Gupta, a safe school is one where all staff are fully vaccinated, all students and educators wear masks, a proportion of the student body is tested weekly and improvements have been made to ventilation with the help of funding from the American Rescue Plan.

“Those four things in order of priority to me are what a safe school looks like. I know that it’s being deployed in many schools across the country, but it’s not in many schools across the country, and that’s why we’re having this discussion,” said Gupta.

Redlener reiterated the need for people to get vaccinated. The experts agreed that vaccines, including boosters, remain the best public health measure to protect people from COVID-19 and are highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and death.

The number of children who are contracting COVID-19 and being hospitalized is soaring, said Redlener. That’s why there must be a focus on their health and safety as well. 

“We can’t teach children if the teachers are getting sick, and the health and well-being and safety of teachers is equal to our desire to make sure that children remain healthy and free of this disease,” he said.

Murthy, who delivered taped remarks and later answered questions posed to him about stress and vaccines, stressed the importance of determining the best way to protect people, especially children, given the rapid spread of the omicron variant. “I share your goal of keeping our kids in the classroom for so many reasons, for their learning, for their development and for their mental health and well-being. But we have to do this while ensuring the safety of everyone in a school environment,” he said.

Vaccines are the best protection

When asked about the efficacy of vaccines and boosters given the number of breakthrough cases, the experts agreed: Vaccines and boosters remain the best public health measure to protect people from COVID-19 and are highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and death.

“This is what it comes down to,” said Redlener. “It may be confusing for some people, but we need to understand this very important point: The vaccines do not eliminate the virus from affecting you in many cases, but they will dramatically reduce the possibility of you getting really sick or not surviving.”

“We do a disservice in our messaging” about vaccines, said Gupta. “Vaccines against contagious respiratory viruses are only intended to keep you away from the hospital. This expectation that they were going to prevent a positive test or mild symptoms—that should never have been given to the American public because I think it sets us back psychologically from getting out of this pandemic, and now omicron is forcing us to reckon with this reality in real time.”

Redlener said we should stop calling that third shot a booster shot. “Everybody needs the third shot right now.”  

When asked about masking, especially in states without mask mandates, the experts emphasized the need for a high-quality mask, such as a KN95 or KF94 mask, from a reputable source.

Weingarten took a moment to talk about the most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that calls for shortening the recommended time for isolation to five days for people who test positive if they are asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving (without fever for 24 hours). A person can then follow that by five days of wearing a mask when around others to minimize the risk of infecting anyone else. Weingarten called the new guidance “confusing.”

“We’re all biting our tongues because it is confusing,” said Redlener. The pushback on the new guidance from the CDC comes from those who are concerned about the lack of testing to confirm that they are OK to return from isolation. “If the goal is to get people back to school, back to work, to them running their lives, then it’s important for all kinds of reasons that we get people back faster than 14 days. That’s what the new guidance was based on,” said Redlener. 

The guidance is OK for the triple vaccinated who are otherwise healthy and asymptomatic, but it may take the unvaccinated much longer to test negative after contracting COVID-19, said Gupta. 

With the mass procurement of disposable tests, it would be interesting for schools and districts across the country to think about investing in labs and rapid PCR testing platforms, said Gupta. “The idea that we’re seeing all this money on tests that are used once and thrown away versus an infrastructure that we can build on that should be subsidized by the government is compelling,” he said. 

“At the end of the day, educating our children is absolutely critical,” said Redlener. To do that, “we need healthy students and healthy teachers and staff. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We must focus simultaneously on both parts of that symbiosis. And I think that the AFT has [been able] to get this done effectively to make sure that their members are protected and children can stay in the classroom.” 

[Adrienne Coles]