As the new COVID-19 vaccine hit pharmacies this week, cautious Burbank Unified School District officials and L.A. County health experts recommend widespread vaccination with the new school year well underway.
As of Sept. 11, there have been 33,351 total COVID-19 cases in Burbank, according to the Los Angeles County Public Health Department.
At the beginning of summer, local health experts expressed concern over the sharp increase in COVID-19 testing positivity rates. In June, the figure was just 4%, but that number spiked to almost 16% by late August before taking a dip to around 14% at the start of September.
COVID-19 hospitalization rates are also on the rise, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however Los Angeles County cases are lower than the national curve, according to local wastewater and testing data.
There were roughly 200 current hospitalizations in June, compared to 612 as of the second week of September. Still, Los Angeles County remains in the CDC Low Hospital Admission Level with 7.2 weekly COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 people as of Sept. 11.
There are now 14 prominent COVID-19 variants, but global health experts say that the jury is still out as to whether these new variants — EG.5, BA.2.86 and XBB. 1.5 which stemmed from Omicron — will be of significant concern.
The new vaccine, manufactured by ModernaTX Inc. and Pfizer Inc., more effectively targets these new variants, health officials said, and it became available in Burbank pharmacies this week.
“The 2023-2024 updated COVID-19 vaccines more closely target the XBB lineage of the Omicron variant and could restore protection against severe COVID-19 that may have decreased over time,” the CDC stated on its website. “We anticipate the updated vaccines will be better at fighting currently circulating variants.”
The new vaccine is recommended in Burbank schools, but no requirement has been levied by county health officials. Burbank Unified School District COVID-19 policy is guided by the County Department of Health, which has not issued masking or vaccine mandates.
According to a statement from the CDC, “Staying up to date on vaccines is especially important heading into fall and winter, as indicators of COVID-19 transmission, including more outbreaks in schools, work sites and skilled nursing facilities, have increased in Los Angeles County over the past few weeks.”
Lenora Aguilera, Head Nurse for the district, agreed with that position. Aguilera strongly recommended that students and district staff receive the new vaccine and that masking and frequent boosters are the official stance of the district per county recommendations.
“According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, anytime that individuals are in a crowded area, it is strongly recommended that they do wear masks. We have masks available in sizes that would fit young children and we have masks for older children and adults that are available,” said Aguilera.
The district is still following strict contact tracing guidelines in a cautious effort to prevent outbreaks in schools, Aguilera said.
“When a parent informs us that their child has COVID, we document that information, we educate parents, we provide them with their student’s isolation period, and the recommendations if the child is able to meet the criteria to returning to the school environment, after the required five-day isolation period, and what that would look like,” Aguilera told the Leader.
“What we do is we document information on a COVID intake form, and then we track information, cohorts, [and] we look for individuals that might be epi-linked in the school environment. If we determine that is the case, then we do notify public health through the online system,” she added.
Aguilera emphasized that it is important to document and report outbreaks of COVID-19 because county public health officials could identify that case numbers in a region are a cause for concern, and could subsequently advise masking for 10 days.
Aguilera added that such decisions can either be levied as a recommendation or a requirement, given the circumstances of the outbreak.
“Parents want to know these things. There are some parents that if it’s strongly recommended, they’re not going to do it, but if it’s required by public health, that’s different. So sometimes things might change, but as a district we don’t independently make those choices. This is a collaboration between the school district and public health,” she said.
Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices have recommended updated COVID vaccines to individuals 6 months and older.
“The updated vaccines are expected to provide good protection against COVID-19 from the currently circulating variants,” read a press release from the FDA. “Barring the emergence of a markedly more virulent variant, the FDA anticipates that the composition of COVID-19 vaccines may need to be updated annually, as is done for the seasonal influenza vaccine.”
First published in the September 23 print issue of the Burbank Leader.