Health Department officials implored residents to get vaccinated, tested, and consider outdoor celebrations — with warmer weather expected this weekend — as case counts continue to rise and omicron has become the dominant strain in the U.S.
“Regardless of vaccination status — we want people to get tested multiple times,” Sokol said.
“Our entire state is at one of the two highest levels of transmission,” Sokol said.
The announcement follows the NOLA Public Schools district’s recently approved request to add the COVID-19 vaccine to its required shots for enrollment for all children over the age of 5. On the same day the district announced that requirement, which goes into effect Feb. 1, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said she would require children ages 5 and older to show proof of partial vaccination or a negative test to enter restaurants and other businesses beginning Jan. 3 and proof of full vaccination by Feb. 1.
The New Orleans school district’s vaccine mandate begins months before a statewide school vaccine mandate requested by Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to take effect at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year. The statewide requirement, which is facing a legal challenge from state Attorney General Jeff Landry, will only apply to age groups that have been given full FDA approval to receive a vaccine, currently those 16 and over.
Louisiana offers broad exemptions for parents who do not wish to vaccinate their children. Along with opt-outs for medical or religious reasons, parents can avoid the requirement by citing personal philosophical beliefs.
In a Wednesday interview, Tulane University epidemiologist Dr. Susan Hassig said the city and district’s new policies will help curb the spread of the virus but also expressed concern about the holidays.
As people searched for at-home COVID-19 tests and waited in long lines for city-administered ones amid the surge, city officials held a program to give away at-home rapid tests to New Orleans residents. The giveway was scheduled for Dec. 22-23, but supplies were exhausted after the first day.
Asked about schools, many of which are on a two-week break for the holidays, Sokol said masking should continue upon return and encouraged testing what she called “entry testing” before students returned. Many city schools required a negative test to return to the classroom after Hurricane Ida.
Orleans Parish school district officials have said the vaccine requirement is intended to help combat the omicron surge. They did not respond to additional questions this week about any additional measures they may take or potential changes in operations.
On Tuesday, the NOLA Public Schools district encouraged students to continue to get tested through the winter break.
“My sense is that the district has done really a pretty good job of implementing a multilayered strategy to deal with COVID in schools,” Hassig said. “My gut instinct is to maybe do the first two weeks remote to deal with omicron because it’s so transmissible.”
If students do return Jan. 3 as planned, Hassig suggests the district increase testing.
“I’m hoping they would do some more intense testing the first week or so,” she said. “Especially with kids having been out and with family and sometimes without knowing vaccination status.”
She praised the NOLA Public Schools district for maintaining an indoor mask mandate throughout the fall — even as many other school districts across the state opted out — and for adding the vaccine to its requirements.