Marion schools’ COVID-19 cases surge

School crossing guard Quentin Womack directs traffic and student in the crosswalk on the first day of school at Osceola Middle School in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, August 10, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

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Posted August 30, 2021 | By Matthew Cretul,

School crossing guard Quentin Womack directs traffic and student in the crosswalk on the first day of school at Osceola Middle School on August 10. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

The number of COVID-19 cases reported at Marion County Public Schools nearly doubled in a week, while total cases in the county continued to climb and local hospitals crept closer to capacity, according to multiple reports.

The school district recorded 733 new COVID-19 cases for the week of Aug. 21-27, with 627 students and 106 employees confirmed positive by the Florida Department of Health. That was up from 387 cases the week prior, which was a record high at the time.

Additionally, the district had 3,308 students and 96 employees quarantined due to direct contact with someone testing positive for COVID-19.

Parental opt-outs of facial coverings rose as well with 8,706, or 20%, of district’s students having an opt-out form on file. Due to the latest surge in cases, the Marion County School Board enacted a mask mandate for students and employees but allowed parents of students to opt out without needing a medical reason. Employees who want to opt out must provide a doctor’s letter stating they suffer from a condition that precludes them from wearing a mask.

Overall, Marion County saw 3,228 new cases for the week of Aug 20-26, nearly 400 more than the week before. The number of cases per 100,000 population rose as well, from 762.5 in the previous report to 866.6 on Friday, according to a DOH report.

Marion County’s hospitals reported 99% of inpatient beds were full, with COVID-19 cases making up 37% of all admissions. ICUs beds were 97% full, with 44% of them occupied by those with COVID-19, according to reports from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The cases per 100,000 number is one of the measures that Mark Lander, the DOH in Marion County administrator, advised the school board to monitor before the board’s school mask policy could be lifted. The current rate of 866.6 per 100,000 is well above the threshold of 99 per 100,000 the community would need to reach and hold for two weeks before the policy is lifted.

The other metric Lander suggested to consider was the positivity rate. The rate fell last week to 25%, which is above the 10% level recommended by the CDC.

Marion County reported 3,197 vaccinations given in the latest report, bringing the county’s vaccination rate for those 12 and older to 59% or 192,780 residents. The local rate lags behind the state’s average of 68%, according to the DOH.

The county is partnering with public schools to offer free booster shots to immunocompromised individuals. The Pfizer and Moderna shots will be available from 9 am- 1 pm at Liberty Middle School for the next three Saturdays.

The state, as a whole, also saw new cases rise over previous weeks, as it reported 151,749 new cases, 1,513 more than the prior week. Coupled with the rising case count, the state saw vaccination numbers drop for the first time in the last five weeks.

Also, at the state level, a group of parents won a court victory over Governor Ron DeSantis’s ban on mask mandates on Friday, with a judge ruling that the state cannot ban mask mandates.

According to the Associated Press, Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper said DeSantis’ order preventing counties from enacting their own mask mandates “is without legal authority.”

A spokesman for the Governor’s office issued a statement saying the state plans to appeal the decision and that “This ruling was made with incoherent justifications, not based in science and facts — frankly not even remotely focused on the merits of the case presented.”

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