From June 2021, seventeen-year-old Terrence receives a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Booker T. Washington High School after the CDC lowers the eligibility age to 12. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The NOLA Public Schools district is tracking 22 “active” cases of COVID-19 associated with district staff and students and 94 people are quarantining after being exposed to a known positive case, according to the district’s weekly report issued Monday afternoon. 

That’s slightly higher than the 19 cases reported last week and 199 people who were in quarantine — though district officials cautioned those numbers likely didn’t fully represent cases as the report followed the Thanksgiving holiday break where most schools were closed for the week.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration, meanwhile, is in the process of adding COVID vaccinations to the state’s schedule of required vaccines for Louisiana K-12 students . Parents can opt out of the mandate by simply attesting to being philosophically opposed to the vaccine, but the move has caused a furor among the Republican-led legislature. On Monday, a state House committee met to debate the proposal, voting to disapprove it. Edwards, however, can override the vote and move ahead. 

Prior to the holiday break, cases at city schools hovered around 50 and more than 400 people were in quarantine. The state saw a spike of cases during last year’s holiday season as people traveled and gathered with friends and family. Travel and gatherings were expected to be less likely to spread the virus this year with the introduction of vaccines, though a new variant is causing some concern, prompting travel bans in Europe and some end-of-the-year event cancellations.

The omicron variant of COVID-19 was confirmed in the greater New Orleans area, state health officials announced Friday evening. A second probable case was found in an employee of Norwegian Cruise Lines, among 17 total known cases, which unloaded thousands of passengers in the city on Sunday. The crew member did not leave the ship and passengers with confirmed cases have been told to quarantine, according to a city press release.

The city has seen a slight uptick in average new cases at 22 per day and its test positivity rate dipped back below one percent after going above that mark in late November for the first time since early October, according to city data. Testing dropped off substantially during the Thanksgiving holiday but has nearly rebounded to pre-holiday levels.

“We now know Omicron is here in Louisiana. This is cause for concern, but not panic,” State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter said in a statement Friday. “We have been expecting and preparing for this moment. To all Louisianans, the single best action you can take to protect yourselves and your families is to get yourself and loved ones vaccinated and boosted if eligible.”

The NOLA Public Schools district doesn’t currently have any vaccination events scheduled but does have information on health organizations offering vaccinations and the district continues to offer COVID-19 testing, district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo wrote in an email Friday afternoon.

“The health and safety of our students remain our top priorities. To that end, as the pandemic continues to evolve, NOLA Public Schools will continue to coordinate with our health care and government leaders and adjust its guidelines as recommended by health officials. Currently, our guidance is in line with the CDC’s recommendations,” Alfonzo wrote.

“Our health partners are looking at the data, discussing it, and will provide their recommendations as the virus continues to evolve,” she wrote in response to questions about the omicron variant. 

“We strongly encourage parents to have their children 5 and older vaccinated, get them tested regularly, and stay abreast of the CDC’s recommendations,” she wrote.

Required vaccinations for students

Whether the COVID-19 vaccination should be required for school children was up for debate in Baton Rouge on Monday. 

The House committee on Health and Welfare held an hourslong hearing on the Louisiana Department of Health’s recommendation to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the state “immunization schedule” for children attending schools and daycares before ultimately voting 13 to 2 to reject adding it to the list.

The state requires several vaccines, including measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria and tetanus. Parents can opt out of the requirement for not only religious or medical reasons but also philosophical reasons, a broad exemption compared to other states.

Republican lawmakers questioned both the vaccine’s safety and the department’s recommendation, and dozens of members of the public spoke against adding the shot to the required list. 

But unless Gov. John Bel Edwards agrees with the vote, the rule can move forward. His spokeswoman Christina Stephens said he intends to move forward with requiring the shot for students.

“As the Governor said on Friday, he supports adding the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine to the immunization schedule and, barring a recommendation from public health experts, his opinion would not change,” Stephens wrote. “Also, as LDH testified today in the hearing, the Department absolutely has the authority to add this vaccine to the immunization schedule, despite the misinformation presented today at the Legislature. This vaccine is safe, it is effective and it is easily accessible across the state.” 

Stephens also pointed out Louisiana’s broad opt-out options. “None of that will change when this vaccine is added to the immunization schedule.”

She echoed what Kanter said earlier in the day.

“Children have certainly not been spared, and nationally for the month of September, COVID-19 was the 6th leading cause of death among children aged 5-14, and 4th leading cause of death among individuals aged 15-24,” Kanter said during Monday’s hearing. “Vaccines are the single best tool we have to fight back.”

In addition to the law that allows the state to require vaccinations, state health officials cited state law that covers sanitary codes, and pointed to a section that allows the Department to set requirements to prevent communicable diseases.

Dozens of public commenters spoke out against adding the shot to the list. 

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and a well-known vaccine skeptic often accused of using his platform to spread misinformation, was one of them.

During a presentation to the committee he called the COVID-19 shot the “deadliest vaccine ever made,” according to Advocate reporter Blake Patterson.

Kennedy was invited to testify on Monday by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican who is considered a likely contender for the 2023 gubernatorial race. Landry has spent much of the pandemic fighting state mitigation efforts.

Asked about Kennedy’s testimony, Kanter rebuffed it. 

“In the middle of a pandemic I find misinformation like that to be extremely dangerous,” Kanter said.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...