JOLIET, IL – It was last summer, during the early days of the COVID-19 Pandemic and several months prior to the vaccine rollout, that special end of school year events being organized independently by parents brought about some super-spreader Coronavirus activity.
This year, the Will County Health Department (WCHD) reminds everyone that contact tracers are still coming across cases of Coronavirus that go back to large groups congregating to celebrate major milestones such as weddings and graduations.
This is especially true when it comes to high school students, and how end of senior year events such as proms and graduation parties have been placed under a completely different microscope than before.
The fact remains that numerous high school students have not been vaccinated. (This, however, can now change, as Pfizer has received approval this week for their COVID-19 vaccine to be given to 12 to 15-year-olds.) The lack of vaccinations among high school students can make any end of school event concerning high schoolers equally as dangerous as one year ago.
“Young people are driving the latest COVID-19 surge,” said WCHD epidemiologist Alpesh Patel. “Many outbreaks in young people are related to youth sports and extracurricular activities. Prom is an inherently high-risk activity, as it is a social gathering that involves dancing and singing (both of which are activities with increased respiration in an indoor environment), and also presents concerning opportunities for students to break health and safety protocols in a relaxed environment.
“The risk of spread of COVID-19 among school staff, students, and their families participating in these activities during the pandemic remains significant,” Alpesh continued. “We strongly recommend that schools/parents do not have proms and instead substitute alternative celebrations for seniors.”
But those alternative celebrations must be planned cautiously and with common sense. One of last year’s biggest super-spreader events was a “make-up prom” event organized in Indiana. But going over the state line did not change the fact that an event ignoring mask wearing and social distancing can spread COVID-19 in one location, and then bring it back to many other locations.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recently updated guidelines for small gatherings for this year’s end of school year/graduation celebrations. These guidelines can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays/small-gatherings.html.
The CDC recommends keeping these celebrations virtual if possible, limiting them to people who live with you, or having them outside while taking preventative measures. If your family has been vaccinated, the CDC says you can gather indoors with fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart. The CDC also says you can gather indoors with unvaccinated people of any age from one other household (such as visiting relatives who live together) without masks or staying six feet apart UNLESS anyone in that household has an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 (such as those who need a ventilator to help them breath or recently were hospitalized and/or in intensive care).
In addition, you can gather or conduct activities outdoors without wearing a mask if you do not have a crowded situation where social distancing is not possible. More is available at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated.html.
WCHD Executive Director Sue Olenek says that more than anything, going about day-to-day life as if nothing changed is not the course of action to take right now.
“The last thing we want is to take a giant step backwards. It’s definitely too soon to act like we have returned to normalcy. Sure, some festivals and concerts are scheduled to return this year, but we must observe mask and social distancing procedures while attending those events, and continue to vaccinate as many as we can.
“Remember,” Olenek concluded, “this Friday (May 14th) we are just beginning the ‘Bridge Phase,’ which will lighten up the restrictions further before we finally get to Phase 5 (tentatively set by Governor Pritzker for June 11th), which will be the return to normalcy.”
For more on IDPH’s (Illinois Department of Public Health) planned path from Phase 4, to the Bridge Phase, to Phase 5, go to https://coronavirus.illinois.gov/s/bridge-phase.
For more on COVID-19 and WCHD programs, go to https://willcountyhealth.org/.