JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The number of new COVID-19 cases reported within Duval County Public Schools has tapered off significantly within the last week. Doctors say it's an indicator that the school district's stricter mask mandate is working.
The 2021-22 school year started off with a mask requirement that students' families could easily opt-out of online. About 10 percent of the student population or 12,500 students opted out within weeks of the school year. Cases of the coronavirus on campus quickly multiplied, though the district isn't tracking masked versus un-masked cases.
Effective Sept. 7, Duval Schools' policy was strengthened to only allow medical opt-outs. Less than one percent of the student body had opted out under the new policy as of last week.
School district data analyzed by the Times-Union shows that the day-to-day count of new cases reported is trailing off.
The district reported an average of 135 new cases each day the week (Aug. 30-Sept. 3) before the stricter mask policy went into effect. The district reported an average of 36 cases a day last week (Sept 13-17).
"Mask mandates work," said Dr. Mobeen Rathore, chief of pediatric infectious diseases and immunology at UF Health Jacksonville and at Wolfson Children's Hospital. "Masks were mandated and [the] number of weekly infections in students decreased."
Rathore was an early supporter of the school district putting a universal mask mandate in place. He, along with other local medical professionals, spoke at School Board meetings and on local panels about COVID-19 safety.
COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations decreasing in Jacksonville
Last month represented the month with the most reported cases of COVID-19 in Duval County since the start of the pandemic.
In Jacksonville, COVID-19 cases have decreased significantly in the last few weeks — in part because of people getting vaccinated — but are still considered "very high" according to the New York Times.
"An average of 363 cases per day were reported in Duval County, a 39 percent decrease from the average two weeks ago," the Times reported. "Right now, Duval County is at an extremely high risk for unvaccinated people."
The number of hospitalizations in Jacksonville has also fallen, data shows.
Wolfson Children's Hospital had 117 children admitted between the first week of school (Aug. 10) through the week of Sept. 7 when the tougher mask mandate was put into effect. From Sept. 7 through Monday, the hospital has had 44 admissions.
"Since children can spread the coronavirus, you would certainly expect to see an impact on the community as a whole when you can decrease viral transmission among children," said Shalika Katugaha, MD, FACP, System Medical Director of Infectious Diseases at Baptist Health.
Daniel Leveton, a spokesman for UF Health, said COVID-19 case numbers are down overall within the hospital circuit and that numbers continue to trend downward. As far as the number of young people hospitalized, it has stayed consistently low — ranging from two-to-three children this week and last. But Leveton said in general, UF Health doesn't typically get a lot of young patients unless they're in the pediatric ICU.
Still, leaders say this can be because of a combination of factors — including the mask mandate, access to vaccines and Regeneron clinics for people who are diagnosed with COVID-19.
"I believe the primary reasons we are seeing a decrease in the Delta variant’s effect in our community are increased rates of vaccination and the effectiveness of current vaccines which are available to individuals age 12+ at this time," Katugaha said.
On Monday, Pfizer announced that vaccines for children 5 through 11 years old would be available by Halloween.
Despite the good news, COVID-19 related deaths are increasing in Duval County, data shows.
On Saturday, health department data showed 125 new deaths and a seven-day average of 21 deaths, the New York Times reported.
As of last month, Duval Schools Superintendent Diana Greene said the district had lost 11 staff or faculty members to COVID-19 this year. No student deaths within the school district have been reported to date.