Eastern Jackson County schools grapple with virus and vaccines

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net
The Examiner

Federal regulators extending vaccine availability to older teenagers comes at a time local health officials say they’re seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases in young adults, and some schools have been dealing with small case clusters and have offered vaccine clinics for students as the school year winds down. 

A student at Truman High School gets a COVID-19 vaccination.

People age 16-19 have been eligible for the Pfizer vaccine for a couple of weeks – those age 16 and 17 need parental consent – and soon that vaccine could be available for children ages 12-15.  

According to the dashboard of the Jackson County Health Department, which includes the county outside of Kansas City, the 15-19 age group rose more in cases per 1,000 population than any other age group last month – from 2.7 new cases to 6.9. 

“We’ve been tracking case rates on a weekly basis and monthly basis, and between the end of March and end of April, those age 15-19 more than doubled (in new case rate),” said Charles Cohlmia, communicable disease prevention manager with the department. 

The reasons for that spike, Cohlmia said, are likely complex, but it wouldn’t be surprising if people are letting their guard down a bit. 

“There’s a general push to open up as a vaccine becomes more available,” he said. 

One of a few outbreaks noted on the county department’s dashboard is at Truman High School in Independence, which has inched up to 14 cases and led to a student theater production getting postponed. An outbreak is considered a cluster of cases linked together in space and time, and it remains active until two maximum incubation periods (28 days) have passed since the last positive case. 

The Independence School District says right now there are eight active cases at Truman, and most students who had been on quarantine for contact tracing are off of that by now. Across the entire school district, there are18 active cases among students and staff, and less than 1 percent are on quarantine due to exposure. 

Last Friday the district partnered with the Independence Health Department to administer vaccines at the three high schools and Independence Academy. Director of Health Services Lori Halsey said about 300 students received the vaccine, and they’ll get follow-up shots in a couple of weeks. 

“The event (went) really smooth, and the students were excited to receive that vaccine at school,” Halsey said. 

If federal regulators approve the vaccine for younger students, the district could host a clinic for them, she said, though it likely wouldn’t be by the end of this school year.  

“We’ve had vaccine clinics in the fall before school started; it would look similar to those,” Halsey said. 

For summer school, ISD will maintain its current masking and distancing efforts, though the next school year in August is to be determined, based on recommendations at the time. Halsey said she’s proud of the mitigation efforts the district and families have taken this year, as schools didn’t have to revert from in-person learning. 

“We safely maintained the school and worked hard to maintain the kids in school,” she said. 

The Lee’s Summit School District hosted the county Health Department for clinics at its three high schools on April 22, with second shots scheduled for May 20. The district has reported fewer than 20 new cases each week since mid-March, though new quarantine exposures rose notably in April, from 31 to 148 before dipping to 128 as of Monday. 

At St. Michael the Archangel Catholic High School, Principal Jodi Briggs said the school recently had a “slight increase in cases, but it seems to have stabilized.” 

The school wasn’t planning to host a vaccine clinic onsite but has been promoting weekly information on the nearby clinics. 

Similarly, Grain Valley Deputy Superintendent Brad Welle said, the district is open to hosting a vaccine clinic but has not scheduled one and promotes vaccine opportunities in the area. That district experienced a slight increase in new cases and quarantines the last week of April but otherwise had died down since a slight surge in early February, with just a handful of weekly new cases. 

Blue Springs and Fort Osage school districts note active cases in just 0.16 percent and 0.09 percent of their student and staff populations, respectively, on their most recent COVID-19 dashboards. 

In general, health agencies have been scheduling more vaccine events around communities, often without needing appointments, as demand has slowed and sometimes trails availability. 

Cohlmia said people are better now than they had been a year ago about taking basic precautions, “But we want people to understand that the virus isn’t gone because the vaccine is available.” 

“It’s making sure they know the general risk that comes with COVID and prolonging the pandemic. It’s been almost 14 months since the first case.”