Expert Advisory Panel 4 re-evaluates safety policies amidst COVID-19 Omicron variant surge



Expert Advisory Panel 4: Public Health, Safety and Logistics convened virtually via Zoom on Jan. 7 at 3 p.m. to review COVID-19 public guidelines amidst a rise in cases and the Omicron variant.

Expert Advisory Panel 4: Public Health, Safety and Logistics convened virtually via Zoom on Jan. 7 at 3 p.m. to discuss the impact of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant and potential policy adjustments to accommodate the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in the Public Schools of Brookline (PSB).

The panel firmly stated that they do not believe the district should be considering schooling environments alternative to in-person learning at this time.

Medical Director at MassHealth and pulmonary and critical care physician at the Cambridge Health Alliance Lakshman Swamy said a vaccine mandate would solve all COVID-19 related problems, and the district should continue to explore this possibility.

“The number of unvaccinated people is a small fraction, around 10 percent, of our population,” Swamy said. “Unvaccinated individuals are contributing 90 to 100 percent of the hospitalizations and when you do that math, it turns into a fifty or a hundred times the risk {for COVID-19 compared to vaccinated people}.”

A student at the high school asked the panel in the chat about the risks and benefits of the recent changes to where students are permitted to eat lunch. As of Jan. 4, students are only allowed to eat lunch in the cafeteria and the common area of the science wing.

Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases and Medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine Ben Linas said this new policy does not make sense from a COVID-19 mitigation standpoint.

“It feels very counterintuitive to be shuttling all these high school students, who struggle sometimes with their masking to begin with, into crowded settings when they are explicitly looking to sit in non-crowded areas and quietly eat their lunch,” Linas said. “My only question to high school admin is could we be a little more creative on that? Really, do they all have to be {in those spaces}? If the building is well-enough staffed to have everyone in the building in the first place, it feels like they should be able to have lunch in the hall and not in the cafeteria.”

Much of the meeting was spent discussing the feasibility of re-implementing a testing program in PSB, specifically with pooled testing.

Swamy said the district’s focus should be on reducing the spread of COVID-19 and addressing the staffing shortage as opposed to implementing a testing program that would require immense resources.

“A testing program is not at all what we should be thinking about. First of all, we don’t have the testing capacity. Second of all, the staffing shortages are the biggest problem. The efforts to keep the schools at zero COVID-19 [cases] are not really our goal right now. The biggest reason to consider it is when we say, ‘Are our mitigation measures in the schools effective?’ Right now, I feel that we already know that they are,” Swamy said.

Linas also said implementing a testing program would be a poor use of limited resources, as PSB is currently struggling to provide tests to symptomatic students.

Coordinator of Student Health Services Tricia Laham said PSB should look to the experiences of other districts with pooled testing.

A Newton doctor recently shared a diagram depicting the timespans and ranges for the results PCR tests recognize in patients who are tested for COVID-19. (ANYA RAO/SAGAMORE STAFF)

“We have to be flexible and listen to science and what the realities are. A couple of my colleagues in other districts report that they are finding pooled testing extraordinary difficult and challenging,” Laham said. “Their experiences have been that when they find the COVID-19-positive person, they actually had symptoms, so very rarely are they actually catching a truly asymptomatic person.”

The panel also discussed the possibility of a test-to-return rule, in which students who tested positive for COVID-19 would need a negative antigen test at the end of their quarantine in order to return to school. They concluded that it would not be possible to implement this policy until PSB had the resources to supply antigen tests to any families who may need them.

Laham said the town’s dashboard is not updated yet, however, the nurses are working on recounting cases and hospitalizations.

Co-Chair of Expert Advisory Panel 4 David Gacioch said it is challenging for the panel to distinguish between cases and close contacts for students.

“It’s really hard to disaggregate what’s an in-school transmission, for instance, if a close contact tests positive, was that because of close contact with a person in the classroom or because of a person in an afterschool program yesterday, or a person at home the night before?” Gacioch said. “There are just so many potential contacts for each of us to have with COVID-19.”

The panel called for community members to reach out to school leaders if they could work as a substitute teacher to help the current staff shortage that prompted school closures on Jan. 3.

Gacioch said he is confident in the safety procedures in place.

“There’s just a lot of Omicron around right now, and my thinking is that for my kids, given the controls in place in PSB, understanding that none of them are perfect, {school} is probably one of the safest places they can be right now,” Gacioch said.