Equally troubling has been an increased case count among Santa Fe Public School students, particularly after the district announced seven students from four schools had tested positive for the coronavirus. The district announced its latest infection Thursday evening, as a student from Sweeney Elementary School tested positive for the coronavirus. That makes 14 cases involving district students and staff members since April 5 and 10 this week alone.
According to figures from the state Department of Health, those totals mirror a statewide trend that has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases among school-age children that coincided with public and charter schools reopening April 6.
Overall, the state Department of Health has reported 156 COVID-19 cases in Santa Fe County since April 5, with 81 of those since April 16. Only 10 cases were reported in the county Thursday, the first drop in several days. But the upward trend prompted the city to issue a news release Wednesday night, imploring people to continue to wear masks, maintain social-distancing measures and get vaccinated.
The release stated the 87507 and 87505 ZIP codes were in the state’s top 10 case-reporting counties that day, with 87507 occupying the top spot with 15.
“When public health officials and government leaders keep telling us that ‘we’re not out of the woods yet,’ what they mean is that people are still getting sick and dying, and we still face the threat of backsliding to ‘Yellow’ and the restrictions that come with it,” the release stated.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García said the uptick in district cases is a microcosm of what is happening in the city and the county as a whole. She said the county’s turquoise status — the least-restrictive level of the state’s four-tiered system of pandemic-related public health restrictions — might give a false sense of security to some.
“We have to remember the virus has not gone away and we have not reached herd immunity,” García said. “The spread is real.”
García added that most of the cases reported on campuses are not related and have not led to larger outbreaks, which she said indicates the health and safety guidelines the district is using are working. Of the 14 cases, two were linked to girls basketball players at Santa Fe High School and two students who tested positive at El Dorado Community School were siblings.
The district reported Wednesday three students tested positive at Capital High School, two at Acequia Madre Elementary School and one each at El Dorado and El Camino Real Academy.
District spokesman Cody Dynarski said surveillance testing of teachers required by the state Public Education Department has yet to yield a positive case since schools fully reopened.
However, the increase in cases involving students matches the Health Department’s latest demographics report released Monday, which showed only the 5-17 age group had an increase in its weekly percentage of new cases — to just over 20 percent.
The number of schools in the state temporarily returning to remote learning has grown from zero the first week of full reopening to 16 as of Wednesday, according to the Public Education Department.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean all these children were infected in school,” Health Department spokesman David Morgan wrote in an email. “We can’t ascertain from this data where they were infected (in school, after school, in a sports related practice/game, hanging out with friends off school property, etc.).”
Morgan added the department’s Epidemiology and Response Division is working on a pediatric report, which will include a county-by-county breakdown.
Kyra Ochoa, the director of the city’s Community Health and Safety Department, echoed García’s observation that schools are not the only source of increased cases. Ochoa said city leaders have regular meetings with health officials that focus mainly on vaccines but also provide with information regarding and potential trends.
Ochoa said she was not aware of the recent case increase being related to any specific area.
“We have so many variables, from schools opening to other openings that are happening because we are in turquoise, to people relaxing on COVID-safe practices because they’re tired or hopeful of vaccines,” Ochoa said.
García said the district’s protocols for treating ill students have helped mitigate potential spread. She said students who show symptoms of potential infection are sent home and parents are informed so they can get their child tested. Once a positive test is confirmed, García said the district’s head nurse, Anita Hett, helps coordinate contact tracing. Close contacts are required to quarantine for 10 days, and affected classrooms are cleaned and closed for 24 hours.
In some cases, García said, schools are becoming the last line of defense in battling COVID-19.
“We are watching kids whose parents are sending them to school with symptoms,” García said. “Now, not all of them are COVID. It might be allergies, a cold or a tummy virus, and there is a stomach virus going around right now. But if we catch somebody with symptoms, we ask them to test [for the coronavirus].”