Delta variant: 'A lot of our school systems' are at risk of closing amid surges, doctor warns

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Children are accounting for a larger number of COVID-19 cases as the highly transmissible Delta variant spreads rapidly. And as millions of students return to school nationwide, health officials are warning that infection numbers could get worse, potentially forcing schools to return to remote learning.

“We’re going to start seeing a lot of our school systems, especially those that did not mandate masks, starting to close down,” University of Alabama at Birmingham's Dr. Michael Saag told Yahoo Finance Live. “Our pediatric units… are getting stretched and we didn’t see that before because Delta is different.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than 200,000 children tested positive for COVID-19 for the week ending Aug. 26 — accounting for about 22% of the total cases reported and a five-fold increase from about 38,000 cases for the week ending July 22. And more children are being hospitalized for COVID-19 than any other time during the pandemic. 

“This is not rocket science. It's easier to predict than the stock market,” Saag added when speaking about a rise in cases where school districts have not implemented mask mandates. “We found that school systems that did not mandate masks are getting flooded with cases. Our pediatric units, especially the children's hospital here, are getting stretched.”

After a recent outbreak in an elementary school classroom in California, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report highlighting the threat of the Delta variant to children. The findings showed that an unvaccinated teacher infected with the Delta variant spread the virus to half of the children in her classroom after working for just two days.

A CDC graphic shows that an unvaccinated teacher speaking unmasked led to half of the class being infected with COVID-19. (Source: CDC)
Source: CDC

Despite the fact that the CDC recommends "universal indoor masking by all students, staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status," governors and policymakers in some states have passed legislation or signed executive orders preventing public school districts or local governments from implementing mask mandates. 

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into five states — Oklahoma, Utah, South Carolina, Tennessee and Iowa — probing whether their statewide mask mandates violate students’ civil rights. Meanwhile, a number of school boards in Texas, Arizona and Florida have implemented mask mandates this school year, defying their governors’ executive orders or laws banning face coverings in schools.

A jump in pediatric COVID-19 cases comes as only about half of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. About 205 million people, or 61% of the country has received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the CDC, while 174 million, or 52%, of the population is fully vaccinated.

“I don't understand at all why a school system would say, yes, we want our kids back but we're not going to give them maximum protection by mandating masks,” said Saag. “It's not that big of a deal. it doesn't cost much, but it does save lives and it reduces infections.”

Seana Smith anchors Yahoo Finance Live’s 3-5 p.m. ET program. Follow her on Twitter @SeanaNSmith

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