PHOENIX — The state’s top health official said Tuesday that schools should be able to quarantine unvaccinated students and keep them out of class in at least some cases when they have been exposed to COVID-19.
Dr. Cara Christ said she still believes the best place for children is in school.
“It’s the safest place for kids,” she said, though she said unvaccinated students should be wearing masks even though state lawmakers have now prohibited districts from requiring their use.
The key is making case-by-case decisions, she told Capitol Media Services.
“I don’t think we want to be taking broad, sweeping, quarantining entire schools if they’ve got a case of COVID-19,’’ she said.
But Christ said there are circumstances where separating out some unvaccinated students — and maybe even some who are vaccinated but have underlying health conditions — may be appropriate when there is a confirmed COVID case in a school.
“Isolation and quarantine does remain a tool that’s available to local public health (agencies) when they are working with school districts,’’ she said.
That guidance remains in place, Christ said, even after Gov. Doug Ducey, through his health policy advisor, told school districts they cannot require that unvaccinated students be quarantined even if they have had contact with someone with a confirmed case of the virus.
With the spread of the more highly contagious delta variant of the virus, the guidance is again under review, which could result in recommendations for greater use of quarantines, Christ said.
“One of the things that we’re talking about here at the department is, with how transmissible it is, that all close contacts should be quarantined potentially,’’ said Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services.
“That’s something that we’re working through right now because we want kids in school. We want to be able to use that as a tool but we want to be able to use it sparingly and work to implement other strategies to prevent spread.’’
Several school districts and health departments already were resisting Ducey’s directive, arguing that the question on the use of quarantines for unvaccinated students is beyond the governor’s authority.
Christ did not address what Ducey has ordered. But she said the policies and guidance of her department, including the use of quarantine for unvaccinated people who have been exposed, have not changed since the letter from the governor’s office went out to school districts.
She said any across-the-board ban on quarantines is not the right way to go.
“Schools should work with their local public health departments to determine the best course of action if they have cases,’’ Christ said.
The question is particularly important at the lower grade levels where there is no vaccine option, she noted.
But she did say any action has to be reasonable. “We don’t recommend that it’s just a blanket quarantine of everybody who’s unvaccinated.” That’s where follow up and input from local health departments come in, with decisions case by case, she said.
“They work on those contact tracing investigations and make specific recommendations for quarantine, ‘watch and wait,’ all different types of strategies depending on that close-contact specific situation,’’ Christ said. She said that can involve making recommendations to families.
“What we want to make sure is we’re not just using unvaccinated status as a sole reason to quarantine people. That’s not how public health works.’’
None of this affects the ability of districts to prohibit students who are infected with COVID-19 from coming to school.
The discussion comes as the number of Arizona COVID cases is on the upswing, routinely topping 1,000 a day, a rate the state has not seen since the end of February. But Christ said there’s no cause for alarm, because the vaccine is “highly effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths.”
Still, just 3.3 million Arizonans are fully vaccinated out of about 7.2 million Arizonans. The latter figure includes those younger than 12 for whom the vaccine has not been approved.
Masks are another highly charged political issue, but “we have not changed our public health guidance here in Arizona,’’ Christ said. “So if you are unvaccinated, we would recommend you wear a mask when you’re around people you don’t live with.’’ Ditto, she said, for vaccinated people at high risk.
That’s personal for her: She has three children, two of whom are not old enough to get inoculated. “Those two will be wearing masks to school even though the school district is not requiring it,’’ Christ said.