On Wednesday Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler announced that more than 200 employees were absent in the first week of January due to the spread of COVID-19 as case numbers continue to climb.
In an email to parents, Tyler said, "Folks, this is a significant development and I don't want to candy coat this. While our student numbers are not as high as they were before Labor Day, our employee numbers are troubling. I have said all along. If we cannot staff our schools, we will have to close. I also want you to know everyone is working double and triple to keep that from happening."
Students were scheduled to be at home Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and remain home Tuesday for a scheduled e-learning day. Teachers will also remain at home, Tyler said, rather than attend scheduled professional development in an effort to stop the spread. He added that he will let parents know on Monday if the district will require masks to be worn when students return.
While students were at home over the holiday break, case counts for COVID-19 began to skyrocket across the nation, setting records in cities from coast to coast. The day before Baldwin County schools returned to class in January, Tyler announced there would not be a mask mandate despite urgings from the CDC to resume mask wearing in public.
On the first day students returned to class, there were 232 COVID-19 related absences in Baldwin County schools. One week later, on Monday, Jan. 11, that number more than doubled with 430 cases. Another 248 were reported the next day.
Doctors say they believe mask wearing could help lower those numbers.
"I have a lot of sympathy for people who are making the decisions," said Dr. Danielle Gilliam, M.D., Thomas Hospital pediatric hospitalist. "They are facing a lot of community blowback because people have strong feelings about what should be done, and what shouldn't be done."
Still, she said, masks are the least invasive way to help limit the spread and keep the weakest in the community safer.
"Not everybody falls into that bubble of 'we'll get over it.' I think if we could decrease the spread, we would keep the weaker safe and also help the hospitals to not to be overflowing."
School districts across Alabama and the nation have switched to virtual learning in recent days as the virus tears through classrooms. Others have reinstated mask-wearing requirements to try and curb the spread.
Gilliam said the Omicron variant currently fueling the outbreak is not causing severe disease in vaccinated individuals, however, it is filling up hospitals and sending more children to the ER.
The numbers in the daily school reports from Baldwin County only reflect those cases officials know about. There are currently 31,000 students in the district in 44 schools. Hundreds of other students are believed to be asymptomatic or unable to be tested due to the limited access to Coronavirus testing. In recent days the lines at testing sites in Baldwin County have left patients waiting hours for the nasal swab.
"A lot of people have Covid and it's not on the record," Gilliam said. "We have higher record numbers than we had at any point in the pandemic."
At Thomas Hospital the current positivity rate, meaning the percentage of total tests that are positive, is 40%. That is the highest that mark has reached since the pandemic began.
While there are currently far less patients using ventilators at Infirmary Health than when the Delta variant slammed into the population last summer, Gilliam said hallways and waiting rooms are still lined with sick people, including children.
Her youngest COVID-19 patient in this newest wave was just 3 weeks old.
Gilliam said parents who are concerned should consider vaccinating their children. The vaccine, she said, has helped stop the virus from causing serious complications in most patients. Currently Alabama holds one of the lowest averages in the nation for vaccination with just 1.45% of children ages 5-11 fully vaccinated.
Even without the vaccination, masks, Gilliam said, make a difference.
"Masks are an inconvenience and there are lots of reasons people don't want their children to wear them which I understand. But, it is a very simple way to decrease the spread,” she said.
“While the rates are high it’s just a kind and courteous thing to do. As soon as this surge dissipates, we can take them off again,” she said.
In his email to parents, Tyler did indicate that the district did not find a distinct rise in cases when they compared the months masks were worn to the months when masks were not.
He wrote, "I'm not going to try to be a scientist and tell you whether the masks work or don't work, but I can tell you that when we wore masks before, we saw significant contagion similar to what we are seeing now, without masks. Each strain of the virus is different as we have learned, but if we believe this will provide some level of benefit, then we may return to school next week with masks."
Gilliam also said that as more children become ill with the virus, she worries about more children also suffering from MIS-C, a multi-inflammatory syndrome that occurs weeks after contracting COVID-19.
While the disease is rare, it is brutal and can kill.
Last year several children in Baldwin County were diagnosed with MIS-C and became gravely ill.
“I did not have any patients pass from MIS-C but it is very serious. Some patients are near death,” she said.