School’s out. Will that help California get ahead of COVID-19?

Coronavirus cases across Los Angeles County soar as students count down the remaining days of school.

As LA prepares for its third pandemic summer, one question looms like the June gloom: What does summer vacation mean for COVID-19?

“It’s very hard to make accurate predictions,” said LA County public health director Barbara Ferrer. “I’m becoming less and less comfortable with the modeling and the predictions, and becoming more and more comfortable just realizing that we have a lot of uncertainty.”

She is not alone.

“I’m a bit cautious about making predictions about the summer and COVID,” said USC virologist Paula Cannon. “Last but not least, I learned that this virus is throwing curveballs at us all the time.”

The county’s official case count is likely to drop dramatically after LA Unified ended its term on Friday. But that has nothing to do with the transmission of the corona virus. The district’s mandatory weekly testing for all students and staff accounts for about half of the test scores reported to the county, Ferrer said.

Without those hundreds of thousands of weekly tests, she said, the county will rely more heavily on data from treatment plants and cases reported in high-risk settings like nursing homes, hospitals and homeless shelters.

Epidemiologists firmly believe it’s too early to tell if COVID-19 has settled into predictable seasonal patterns, such as those associated with influenza or West Nile virus.

The past two summers have been something of a double-edged sword for coronavirus transmission.

School holidays and sunny weather mean less time in crowded classrooms and more time outdoors, slowing the spread of the virus.

But it’s also a time of year when many people let down their guard, drop their masks and gather for parties, weddings, graduations and festivals. And with another hot, dry summer expected, many people in the county will seek air-conditioned shelter indoors, sometimes in crowded cold centers.

Both LA County and the US as a whole saw a slight increase in cases over the past two summers, in July 2020 and August 2021.

This year’s summer wave may have arrived early. Cases are rising locally and nationwide, fueled by ebbing immunity and highly transmissible new omicron subvariants.

“Are we going to have a wave this summer? Yes, we’re already diving into it,” said Andrew Noymer, an infectious disease epidemiologist and demographer at UC Irvine.

The average number of daily new cases reported in LA County over the past seven days was 4,442 at the end of May, a 75% increase from the previous month. The coronavirus test positivity rate rose to 3.6% on June 6 over the same period, from 2.1% on May 9.

Reports from K-12 schools reflected this pattern. Local schools reported 7,854 coronavirus cases among students and staff in the week ended May 29, up from 4,479 in the week ended May 1. With 762 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, children ages 12 to 17 currently have the highest case rate of any demographic in the county.

The most common variant in LA County is BA.2.12.1, a version of Omicron with a knotty delta twist. An aggravating combination of both variants, it spreads faster than the original Omicron and has a genetic mutation on its spike protein that helps it bypass existing immunity from a previous Omicron infection.

“What’s circulating right now is spreading far more than anything we’ve ever seen,” Ferrer said. “This virus is mutating like crazy and is capable of effectively mutating to its advantage.”

Vaccines and boosters remain the most effective ways to slow the spread of the virus and prevent serious illness and death. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends booster shots for all vaccinated individuals ages 5 and older if it has been at least five months since full vaccination. For immunocompromised individuals age 12 and older, and for anyone age 50 and older, the CDC recommends a second booster if four months have passed since their first booster.

Ferrer strongly encouraged people to wear a mask when spending time in crowded indoor spaces, such as while shopping or watching a movie. The county has not reinstated an indoor mask mandate and remains well below the threshold one would trigger.

“I wouldn’t say that anyone needs to worry unduly now because we have amazing tools that we can use to keep most people relatively safe,” she said.

Ferrer also advised people to take a coronavirus test before traveling by plane or attending an indoor event.

“To me, these are sensible steps we can take that don’t really limit our ability to really do the things we love and the people we care about, but recognize that we have a responsibility, ourselves to take care of each other,” she said. School’s out. Will that help California get ahead of COVID-19?

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