By Richard Sullins | richard@rantnc.com

Summer vacation is in its final days and families are stowing their beach gear and preparing to send their children back for another school year. But as new book bags and the supplies that will fill them are bought, there are once again signs that the start of a new year could bring with it another round of COVID-19 infections.

So far, the numbers being reported are nowhere near the levels seen during the Omicron outbreak last winter. But like clouds gathering before a storm, the warning signs are beginning to accumulate.

The numbers are beginning to increase and this week, 68 of the state’s 100 counties, including Lee, are categorized as having a high risk of illness and strain on the health system. That’s up from 50 counties just a week ago.

The Lee County Health Department reported 193 cases for the week that ended July 30, the largest number for a one-week period since February 5, when the Omicron outbreak was beginning to taper off.

A total of 17,716 cases have been reported in the county since the outbreak began in March 2020, meaning that about one in every four persons has contracted the virus. 153 persons have died from COVID in the county over the past 30 months.

Information contained in a report to be given to county commissioners Monday shows roughly two-thirds of cases reported today are among women and that they are primarily in the 18 to 49 age grouping.

The BA.5 variant is now the most prevalent form of the virus in Lee County, accounting for 58 percent of the cases reported. In just two months, this latest version has come out of nowhere to become the most common variety of COVID-19 sweeping the United States, according to the CDC.

Scientists are still struggling to learn all they can about BA.5, but what they can tell us for certain today is that it is continuing to adapt as it mutates, making it more contagious than previous strains and better at evading the body’s immunity defense mechanisms.

Much has changed since the coronavirus first appeared in the United States in 2020. With rapid at-home tests more available than ever before, the number of reported cases is believed to be only a fraction of the actual number of infections within communities. For every reported case in America this summer, scientists believe that between seven to 10 others go unreported.

By that measure, the actual size of the current COVID wave is similar to the Omicron outbreak in January, by far the largest spike in cases seen so far. And according to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the CDC, it’s worse in the southern states than anywhere else in the country.

In January, it seemed like everyone got sick from the virus at the same time. Dr. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston says despite better treatments and better vaccines, about a million people a day are coming down with COVID and around 325 people die from the virus every 24 hours.

Schools reopen this month

The Lee County Board of Education adopted a mandatory masking requirement in a special-called meeting on August 2 last year, just three weeks before classes started. It’s difficult to say what effect that policy had on containing the pandemic since there is no way to measure the impact of something that did not happen.

But the policy quickly ran into a buzzsaw of opposition from a few hundred parents who began using the public comment portion of school board meetings to criticize the mandate as an infringement of parental rights and personal freedoms. Politicians wasted no time in trying to score points from it, too.

But there were others โ€“ smaller in number but every bit as vocal โ€“ who took their turns at the podium to advocate for even stricter action by the board to stop the spread of the virus in classrooms. The debate left unresolved, though, the larger question of where the rights of one parent ends and those of another begins.

As the vaccines became available to the community in 2021, including to school-aged children, the number of cases reported in county schools declined steadily and the board was able to drop its masking requirement altogether on February 21. For the remainder of the 2021-22 school year, masks became optional for students, teachers, staff, and visitors. A state law passed in 2021 required all school boards to reconsider their policy regarding face coverings every month.

The StrongSchools NC Public Health Toolkit, itself controversial because of its recommendations on masking, spacing, and requirements for quarantining and isolating students exposed to, or who contracted, the virus, was replaced on June 23 this summer by the CDC’s Operational Guidance for K12 Schools.

The guidance does away with requirements for staff to report their vaccination status or participation in screening programs if they are unvaccinated, and universal contact tracing has also been eliminated. Although masking is not required, the wearing of face coverings continues to be recommended for counties, like Lee, with a high degree of COVID-19 community transmission levels.

Physical distancing strategies are no longer recommended, but testing, ventilation, and cleaning remain important components of a district’s overall protection strategy.

For the 2021-22 school year, a total of 1,553 students tested positive for COVID since the school year began that August 23, and 392 faculty and staff also tested positive for the virus. The Lee County Schools district enrolls more than 9,000 students and provides employment for 1,200 teachers and support staff.

The county Board of Education meets Tuesday and revisiting the masking policy is not on the agenda. But that doesn’t mean that it wonโ€™t be the topic of discussion once more as students head back to class, especially if cases continue to rise.