Fearing a new surge in coronavirus cases, health and education officials said kids must wear masks during summer school and urged everybody to don face coverings indoors and avoid crowds despite the lifting of rules to do so.
The concern comes more than two weeks after Gov. David Ige announced that the state was transitioning out of emergency mode and ready to treat Covid-19 like other diseases and had no plans to reimpose restrictions any time soon.
The Department of Education said 1,053 confirmed or probable coronavirus cases were recorded last week by its 257 public schools.
Interim Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi acknowledged that the case counts remain well below the peaks of previous surges.
“By comparison, during the height of omicron, we saw numbers like these in a single day in mid-January,” he said Wednesday. “But it’s still a cause for concern.”
“It’s a very real reminder that we’re still in a pandemic,” he said during a joint press conference with Department of Health officials.
More than 40 graduation ceremonies are planned for next week, with the first one scheduled for Monday, Hayashi said.
The state and counties have lifted mask mandates and other Covid-19 prevention measures, and officials have shown little desire to change that. Ige is in Japan this week, but his office noted that he has said “he would not be reinstating any restrictions any time soon.”
Schools also continue to require masks in class. Masks also will be required for indoor graduation, although graduates may remove them for pictures, according to the DOE.
The education department also is handing out at-home coronavirus test kits as attendees will be required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test result within 48 hours of the ceremony.
Hayashi said it will be up to the schools to determine limits on attendance and lei-giving protocols.
“Our schools and students have worked hard to get to this point and we definitely want to celebrate this achievement with family and friends,” he said.
The case counts alone don’t tell the whole story, according to state epidemiologist Sarah Kemble, adding that hospitalization rates and ICU admissions due to Covid also are starting to increase.
The state reported 91 people hospitalized with Covid on Wednesday, including eight in the ICU and four on ventilators. That was below a peak of more than 400 people hospitalized in January, when hospitals were overwhelmed with patients due to the omicron variant.
The weekly positivity rate also rose to 14.3% from 11.5% last week. The state switched to weekly reports instead of daily in March. Officials have said they are focusing on hospital capacity instead of numbers in determining policies and the need to reimpose restrictions.
“My personal philosophy is we have to be ready for a surge at any time,” Kemble said. “We might be having our next surge now. That’s part of not being in a truly endemic state yet.”
She urged people to maintain Covid-19 prevention measures, including staying up-to-date with vaccinations.
About 77% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated, with about 39% of them receiving a booster shot, according to official figures.
The DOE previously said it would maintain a mask mandate for public schools through May 27, the last day of school for teachers.
Kemble said Wednesday that the decision was made this week to require those participating in DOE summer programs to wear face coverings as well.
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