An unvaccinated elementary school teacher who took off their mask to read to students ended up infected nearly half of them last May – and they went on to infect other students, family members and community members, California public health officials reported Friday.
It’s a prime example of how easy it is to undermine efforts to protect children too young to be vaccinated, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said.
The teacher came to work even though they had Covid-19 symptoms and then took off their mask to read to the young students, a team at Marin County Public Health reported in the CDC’s weekly report on death and disease.
In the classroom of 22 students, 12 became infected, and eight of the 10 students sitting closest to the teacher became infected.
“The school required teachers and students to mask while indoors; interviews with parents of infected students suggested that students’ adherence to masking and distancing guidelines in line with CDC recommendations was high in class. However, the teacher was reportedly unmasked on occasions when reading aloud in class,” the report reads. “Throughout this period, all desks were separated by six feet.”
Eventually, 27 people, including the teacher, were infected. None were seriously ill and all recovered. Those cases that were analyzed involved the Delta variant of coronavirus, and the researchers said they were not necessarily able to test everyone who may have been infected in the outbreak.
“The introduction of the virus into the classroom by a teacher who worked in school, while she was both symptomatic and unvaccinated and who was unmasked when reading aloud to a class, resulted in cases within the classroom, across the school and among families of students and staff in the community,” Walensky told a White House Covid-19 briefing Friday. “We know how to protect our kids in school. We have the tools.”
Dr. Lisa Santora, deputy health officer for the county, said officials there had been urging teachers to be vaccinated since January, but many had not done it. “We saw firsthand that it wasn’t kids who were going to get teachers sick. It was going to be the reverse,” Santora told CNN.
The CDC also highlighted what happens when things go right.
Los Angeles County officials studied cases in their schools from September to March. They counted 463 cases among students in that time that could be linked back to a school exposure, and 3,927 among staff who were back in person. This was a far lower case rate than in the community at large during the same period, they reported.
“In schools with safety protocols in place for prevention and containment, case rates in children and adolescents were 3.4 times lower during the winter peak compared with rates in the community,” they wrote.