Education groups in wait-and-see mode as Omicron surge projected by mid-January
The lightning-fast Omicron coronavirus variant could generate a daily record of 1,500 COVID-19 cases by mid-January if the infection rate goes unchecked, a sober warning of the scale of spread that could be unleashed after the high-traffic holidays.
That caution by national epidemiologist Dr Karen Webster-Kerr comes amid Wednesday’s revelation by Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton that a returning traveller to the United Kingdom who had been on a short stay at a Jamaican resort had tested positive for the variant.
School administrators are already concerned about how the emerging strain could affect face-to-face classes after 21 months of disruption, with high levels of learning loss reported.
Jamaica Teachers’ Association President Winston Smith said the situation must be closely monitored by the health authorities.
“We have to watch it carefully because we do not want to put our teachers and students at risk, but at the same time, we are very much mindful that we need to return to face-to-face schooling,” Smith told The Gleaner.
“It cannot be that we will close down again and still suffer major learning loss. We still believe that if we are able to control the virus’ spread, then face-to-face learning could take place, but the Ministry of Education will now have to give the necessary support to ensure that all the safety measures are in place and that schools and administrators are able to manage the situation properly,” Smith added.
Much is still unknown about the new strain, including its influence on severe illness, but the pace of spread could have a withering impact on Jamaica, with less than 20 per cent of the population fully vaccinated.
Webster-Kerr said that vaccine effectiveness might be lower against Omicron but recommended booster shots as a stronger measure of protection.
The virus now represents 73 per cent of all new COVID-19 cases in the United States and more than 90 per cent in some states, The Associated Press reported on Wednesday.
“Seventy per cent of us do not perceive that we are at risk of catching COVID, one third of us practise physical distancing, and one in five of us complies with curfews and other orders,” said Webster-Kerr at a press conference on Wednesday, referencing high levels of delinquency.
“It could be acting and boiling underneath, but by mid-January, we could see, on a daily basis, over 1,500 cases,” she said of the new variant.
That projection coincides with a near tripling of overall new COVID-19 cases in Jamaica, jumping from 38 on Monday to 99 on Tuesday.
The Omicron variant, which has been recorded in 89 countries, is said to have a community transmission time of between 1.5 and three days, giving it a significant growth advantage over Delta, while also producing comparatively milder symptoms.
Linvern Wright, president of the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools, said that Jamaica could benefit from the experience of other countries that have reported Omicron cases.
In-person classes were phased in two months ago. That resumption came after a bumpy ride for the education sector, with schools shuttered when the virus reached Jamaica’s shores in March 2020. Online classes have been criticised as inefficient because many children have no computers, and Internet coverage is poor in many remote rural districts.
“We have the privilege of watching what is happening in other places, and the people in health are the ones we have to listen to in regard to how we go forward,” said Wright.
“Certainly, we would want to have school, but we have to deal with the reality before us.”