Chairman Eric Cummings said the Marion County School Board will have a discussion on Thursday about whether to reinstate a mask mandate, with an opt-out provision, now that COVID-19 is spreading rapidly again countywide.
Since the last week of school before winter break, countywide COVID-19 cases reported by the Florida Department of Health have increase tenfold, from 145 for the week ending Dec. 9 to 1,543 for the week ending on Dec. 30.
Meanwhile the state is reporting the county positivity rate has climbed from 3% for the week ending Dec. 9 to 17.4% for the week ending Dec. 30.
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The wave of new cases is partially blamed on the emergence of omicron, a SARS-CoV-2 variant that was identified in South Africa a few days before Thanksgiving.
In August, when the positivity rate was above 30% and there were 3,228 cases throughout Marion County, the school board enacted a mask mandate that gave parents a right to opt their children out of wearing a face covering.
In October, when the cases improved to fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 population, and the positivity rate fell below 10%, both for two straight weeks, the school board rescinded the order.
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Cummings said the rate was 414.3 per 100,000 residents and the positivity rate is now approaching 20%, according to state data.
Back in August, the board also banned volunteers until cases and positivity rate fell below the thresholds. Volunteers were also allowed to return in October.
The case rate was 83 cases per 100,000 for the week ending Oct. 14. It was based on 312 Marion cases reported for the week of Oct. 8-14.
The case rate is four times higher and the positivity rate is nearly double that of the school board's previous thresholds to enact a mask mandate.
"We know the numbers went up over the holidays," Cummings said. "I think the numbers are going to keep going up to the end of the month, and then they will drop back down again."
Cummings said he plans to have a discussion with his fellow board members at the Thursday work session. The session begins at 9 a.m. at the Marion Technical Institute's auditorium, the new location for board meetings.
Cummings said he also wants to discuss the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new quarantine guidance, as well. The CDC once said 14- and 10-day quarantines was recommended. Now the agency "recommends quarantine for 5 days followed by strict mask use for an additional 5 days."
Latest school COVID report
The school district released its latest COVID-19 report on Monday, though it was for the week of Dec. 11-17, the last week school was in session. Cummings said the true gauge of cases in schools will come when the next report is released on Jan. 10.
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The number of COVID-19 cases more than doubled when comparing the week ending Dec. 17 to the week ending Dec. 10.
Monday's school report revealed that only 25 people (17 students and eight employees) tested positive for COVID-19 during the week ending Dec. 17, up from 10 for the week ending Dec. 10.
The record for COVID-19 school cases in one week was 733 from Aug. 21-27.
Marion County Public Schools, the county's largest employer, educates about 43,000 students using 7,000 employees at 51 schools and dozens of district offices.
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There were 169 students and two employees placed under quarantine during the week ending Dec. 17, compared to 55 for Dec. 4-10 and 57 for Nov. 27-Dec. 3. The record was 3,404 for Aug. 21-27.
The number of new cases for all of Marion County was 1,543 for Dec. 24-30, up from 363 for Dec. 17-23, and up 146 for Dec. 3-Dec. 9. The record number of countywide cases was 3,228 for Aug. 21-27, school district data shows.
Total COVID-19 cases in Marion now stand at 59,633.
From Aug. 20-26, Marion recorded a seven-day record of 3,228 cases, or an average of 461 per day. The winter surge peaked in January, which was then a record, at 1,988 (284 per day) in one week.
Marion continues to see spike
Marion County's seven-day total of new hospitalizations was 30 on Monday, though the data had not been updated since New Year's Eve. That is up from 23 just before Christmas, according to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Three months ago, during the spike attributed to the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the total was 350. The seven-day positivity rate was also low: It was as low as 2.79% on Nov. 22. On Aug. 12, Marion County's seven-day positivity rate was 30%.
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The Florida Department of Health reported Friday that Marion's seven-day positivity rate was 2.4% for the week of Dec. 3-9 and 17.4% on Dec. 30.
In all, 224,432 Marion County residents have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Of those, 75,099 have also had their booster.
The report shows that 69.2% of Marion residents ages 12 and older have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, and 64.6% of residents ages 5 and old have had at least one dose.
Meanwhile, 89.4% of residents ages 65 and older have had at least one dose. The data shows that 61.4% of Marion's entire population has had one dose.
— Contact Joe Callahan at (352) 817-1750 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JoeOcalaNews.
This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: COVID in Florida: Marion school mask mandate to be reconsidered