Marin loosens schools’ COVID-19 testing guidelines

Marin school students who contract COVID-19 and then isolate at home for five days will no longer need a negative test to return to the classroom, officials said this week.

“Isolation can end on day 6, if fever-free and symptoms are resolving,” Dr. Lisa Santora, the county’s deputy public health officer, said in an online forum Monday hosted by Marin County Office of Education. “You don’t need to test again.”

Students who return to school after five days of isolation must wear a mask indoors until the 10th day after becoming infected, Santora said. The new guidance, which is effective as of Tuesday, depends on Marin students wearing high-quality masks indoors for about a week, she said.

“A mask is the key to allowing us to relax the guidance,” Santora said. “It depends on the students wearing their masks from days six to 10.”

If a student is unable or unwilling to wear a mask, the pupil will not be allowed to return to school until after the 10 days are up, Santora said. The latter includes student athletes who are not able to wear a mask while competing.

 

School administrators will need to police this requirement, and not allow students to return unmasked, Santora said.

“They need to tell students, ‘If you’re unable to wear a mask, you need to go home,’” Santora said.

“It depends on trust,” she said. “School leadership needs to talk to families so that staff and other students don’t have to be worried.”

Marin teachers and other school staff will still need a negative test after five days of isolation to return because their working conditions are regulated by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Santora said.

The new guidance places Marin in alignment with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has already adopted the new rules.

The CDC has determined that the first five days of COVID-19 infection are the key for isolation, Santora said.

“The first five days are the most contagious,” Santora said. Students who are at home during the five days of isolation, but who still interact with other family members or roommates, should keep a mask on at home, Santora added.

“Also, the family should do everything to improve ventilation at home as much as possible — open all the windows and doors,” she said. “Give us five good days of isolation.”

The CDC has placed Marin in the “low” community level transmission category thanks to a combination of case rates and hospitalization data, said Dr. Matt Willis, Marin public health officer.

“The community level is a more sophisticated measurement,” Willis said. “It takes into account not only the case rates, but also the hospitalization rate.”

According to the CDC, Marin has weekly average of 75.73 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population. The number of new COVID-19 hospital admissions is 8.5 people per 100,000 population.

The percentage of staffed inpatient hospital beds in use by patients with confirmed COVID-19 is 3.7%, the CDC said. Marin was actually below those averages this week, Willis said.

“Today, we have three people in the hospital with COVID-19, and one in the ICU,” Willis said Monday, referring to the intensive care unit.

Willis said the county’s current low community status was auspicious going into the winter holiday season, which has traditionally been a time of COVID-19 surges due to increased indoor gatherings.

“We are well prepared,” Willis said. “We have a high rate of vaccination and an increasing level of vaccine immunity.”

Also, Marin residents have access to the new bivalent vaccines, which offers protection from the omicron strain of the virus, Willis said. The bivalent booster is currently available for those 12 years old and up.

“Also, we have safe and effective treatments, such as Paxlovid, if you should get infected,” he said.

Another plus going into the winter holiday season is that a number of Marin residents who have had COVID-19 and who have recovered have immunity developed from antibodies generated by the body in response to the infection.

“I would say 80% to 90% of Marin has what is called a ‘hybrid immunity,’ which is a combination of vaccine-acquired and infection-derived immunity,” Willis said.

He said that “hybrid immunity” was not the same as “herd immunity” because the coronavirus has continued to mutate. The mutations make it impossible to say if everyone in a given population had overall protection from the same strain of the virus, he said.

Marin has one of the highest vaccination rates of any county in the nation. Of the county’s 254,537 residents, 98% have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the Marin Health and Human Services Department website, coronavirus.marinhhs.org/vaccine.

About 92.1% of Marin residents have received the full original series of the vaccine, and 66.8% have received at least one booster shot.