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COVID-19 Coverage

How safe is it for children to be back in classrooms as COVID cases rise?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's bring another voice into this conversation - U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. Thank you so much for being with us.

VIVEK MURTHY: Of course. Happy to be with you today, Rachel.

MARTIN: Happy New Year to you.

MURTHY: Happy New Year.

MARTIN: New Year, same challenge. For a lot of people, it doesn't feel great to be enduring another winter of COVID isolation. But I do think it's important to start our conversation by acknowledging that we are not in the same place as we were in January of 2021, right?

MURTHY: You're exactly right, Rachel. And let me just say, I know many people are feeling some deja vu. It does feel like we're - keep going through these waves. And that's taking a toll on many people and on their mental health and well-being. So let's just talk for a moment about where we are and why it's different, though. You know, cases are at their highest point, and we are seeing hospitalizations tick up. We should anticipate the next few weeks will be tough, and we will see some high numbers of cases continue, and this may cause some strain in the services around us, like in the health care system.

But here is why this is different and why I believe there are some hopeful signs. No. 1 - the more and more data we see is pointing to omicron being less severe. We can't say that yet with 100% certainty, but it's looking good based on data from other countries and now increasingly from the U.S. The second is we're also seeing that omicron has peaked in South Africa and in the U.K. with a rapid rise but then a rapid decline in cases, and that gives us some hope that we may see, in the U.S., a quick rise and hopefully a quick fall. But the big thing - and this is what's quite different from last year - is our vaccines are proving that they work to save lives and to keep people out of the hospital. The vast majority of the people in the hospital for COVID right now, as in prior waves, are unvaccinated.

And finally, let's just keep in mind that - we learned over the last year that the same tools that worked to help us gather with loved ones over the holiday and engage in some of the activities we loved, they still work to help keep us safe, like good quality masks and gathering in places that have good ventilation. So this is a time to double-down on our precautions, no doubt, to get vaccinated and boosted if you're not, but we are in a much different place than we were a year ago. We have more tools in our toolbox.

MARTIN: Let's talk about testing, what Allison and I were just discussing. Right now the CDC guidance says you don't have to isolate as long if you get COVID. But why isn't there a testing recommendation, too - to get out of quarantine, you'd need to have a negative test result?

MURTHY: Yeah, so great question. So let's just - I want to make sure that we define this. So the CDC gave some new guidance on both isolation and quarantine. It was the isolation guidance that received the most attention. And specifically, isolation is that period of time after you test positive where you avoid contact with other people to protect them. That period had been 10 days. And what the CDC put forward is guidance to shorten it to five days.

Now, they did this in part based on evolving science, in part based on the need to protect and guard the public health and safety, you know, of the public. They have received a lot of feedback, you know, and certainly heard, you know, from, you know, folks that - questions about whether or not testing should be implemented at that five-day mark, before people come out of quarantine. And that's something that they're actively looking at and considering, and they'll issue a clarification on their guidance over the next few days.

But keep in mind, this guidance applies to people who are asymptomatic. So if you are still having symptoms, if you're still feeling unwell at Day 5 or 6, you should continue to isolate for the full 10-day period. And also, even if you do come out of isolation at that five days, it's really important that you wear a mask for the next five days, especially when you're around other people, and that's to help protect them if you are one of the small portion of people who's still infectious at that stage.

MARTIN: We got to talk about schools. This week, schools are reopening after the holiday break. Dr. Anthony Fauci has said schools should stay open. President Biden has said schools should stay open. But some of them are going virtual or thinking about going hybrid. Is that an overcorrection?

MURTHY: Well, this is really the question of the moment about schools because - and the issue of the moment for many families. And I know how stressful this time can be as a parent. My wife and I have two small children who are in school. One is vaccinated; the other is too young to be vaccinated. So we're always thinking about how to optimize our kids' learning and development but also look out for their safety. Look; our collective goal as a society is to make sure that schools stay open safely.

MARTIN: Yeah.

MURTHY: We know how essential that is for kids' development.

MARTIN: Just seconds left.

MURTHY: And the good news is that we know what safety measures work to reduce risk. Getting our kids vaccinated helps. Masks and ventilation, surveillance, testing helps. Now, in the next few weeks, there will be - it will be challenging for some schools, given the rise in cases. We know some schools...

MARTIN: Yeah.

MURTHY: ...May have to make temporary emergency decisions based on their staffing in particular. But our goal should be to make sure that these disruptions are short lived and we can get our kids back to school safety. Our best chance of doing that is to implement the mitigation measures that we know have worked to get our kids vaccinated.

MARTIN: Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. Thank you for your time.

MURTHY: Thank you so much, Rachel. Take care and stay safe.

MARTIN: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.