Santa Clara County’s rolling seven-day average of 2,919 new COVID cases, which only includes tests monitored by the county and thus reflects the tip of the iceberg, continues to climb past previous surge records. The county reported more than 6,000 new positive cases Monday.
The test positivity rate rose steeply and steadily, climbing from 10% to 15% in a matter of days, with an average turnaround time for tests of 1.5 days. Getting a test proved one of the most challenging aspects of the pandemic’s turn for many residents, as appointments booked out for weeks and lines stretched around the block at drop-in sites like one that popped up Friday on El Camino Real in Mountain View.
Some area private schools and universities like Stanford opted to close in person for learning the first week back from holiday breaks, but local public schools educated children in person – and started tallying PCR test results that echoed the county’s data on a large surge in progress.
As of Monday, the Los Altos School District recorded 49 students with positive COVID tests since school resumed. The district, like others locally, uses pooled PCR testing in all of its classrooms on an opt-in basis. Historically, one positive pooled result ended up indicating only one positive student in a cohort, according to Superintendent Jeff Baier. Over the next few days, the district will know whether that rule of thumb continues to hold true with the omicron variant.
Each time a pooled cohort flags a positive test result, individual students in the classroom do an immediate rapid test at their school site. Those who test negative can remain in school, and test again five days later.
The Mountain View Los Altos High School District reported 133 positive student tests, while the Mountain View Whisman School District was reporting 83 positive students Monday. Local districts have seen a high level of opt-in participation, with 92% in MVWSD.
Because so many schools were closed over the holidays as the omicron variant multiplied in the Bay Area, its rate of classroom transmission remains an open question – previous variants saw little to no transmission in local classrooms, which all require masks indoors.
Multiple area schools have echoed to parents the increasing sentiment that it is important for children as well as adults to upgrade from cloth masks – which offer real but limited protection – to KN-95/KF-94 medical-grade masks or surgical masks layered underneath cloth masks.
For all districts, positive staff test results also represented a next big question mark. MVWSD had 37 staff test positive in the past week, MVLA had 36 and LASD had 12.
For all the districts, the staff positive results approximately doubled historic totals for staff infections prior to this past month – meaning far more teachers are currently sick and quarantined at home than during previous surges.
Hospitalizations remain much lower than during last winter’s surge, particularly for ICU treatment, as do deaths both locally and nationally. But because hospitalizations lag several weeks behind the onset of disease, the full scope of the current surge won’t be known until later in January.
The omicron variant continues to appear less likely to cause severe disease, particularly in fully vaccinated people, and multiple independent lab studies have shown that omicron is less infective in the lower lungs. But breakthrough infections are causing symptomatic illness in even fully vaccinated and boosted local residents, leading to staffing concerns everywhere from LASD to El Camino Hospital.
“One of our primary concerns is about keeping staff healthy,” Baier said. “The substitute teacher pool is not deep to begin with, and as we start having staff members positive, or ill, the already shallow sub pool becomes really strained.”
Baier said the district has patched together sufficient educator coverage thus far, but it is “not out of the realm of possibility” that local public schools might have to revert to virtual classes if they run too short on staff to cover in-person classes.
In search of tests
For families that do need to pursue testing outside of the school-run weekly pooled tests, finding an appointment requires hopping between medical provider and pharmacy sites searching for an opening, lining up for the multi-hour wait at many drop-in sites or navigating the county’s appointment booking site for PCR tests.
As of Monday, sccfreetest.org required answering a series of multiple-choice questions, signing up to receive an email appointment booking link, and then getting the deflating error message, “Sorry! All available appointments have been booked. Please check back later.”
Palo Alto Medical Foundation showed one test appointment slot available in Sunnyvale for Jan. 11 when checked late last week, as well as a time in Soquel and an opening in Dublin. Stanford Healthcare offered fairly extensive appointment inventory, but only seven days in the future – and in Emeryville.
There is no mechanism for reporting at-home test results, and even primary care doctors are not, in general, being asked to report positive test data to the county.
The county health department has been using data from its testing sites around the region, as well as other surveillance mechanisms, including at wastewater treatment plants, to track virus variants and prevalence and has not sought to aggregate civilian data from rapid antigen testing.