"Would you be willing to volunteer your time one day out of the week at a COVID testing site?"
The question settled in a twisted knot in the pit of my stomach. The idea of placing myself in front of so many people possibly infected with one of the deadliest viruses this country has seen in generations... was not an easy yes. After a quick back and forth with the site manager discussing safety precautions and where I would be working in relation to the public, I swallowed my hesitations and agreed.
Putting COVID testing sites near me on Google brought up 7 locations in less than a 10-mile radius. With the recent introduction of the new Delta variant strain, however, that was no surprise. The Alpha strain was nothing compared to the Delta. And Sacramento was feeling the effects.
FROM VACCINES TO VARIANTS - HOW DID WE GET HERE
The death tolls from the original (Alpha) COVID-19 crested into the six-figure range in the United States as we reached the final days of 2020. Hospitals across the country were inundated with new cases by the hour. Rooms were filled. Hallways were spilling over with patients waiting for updates from nurses and doctors who were severely overworked and overstressed in an environment that consistently put their lives at risk. With nine long months of a plague under our collective belts, we as a nation were exhausted.
Then came the vaccine.
The first vaccine dose was administered in the US in December of last year. While the initial rollout started with 2 million vaccines nationwide, focusing on healthcare workers and the elderly, the overall rollout aimed for 100 million people to be vaccinated across the country by April of 2021.
With a total of 101.4 million fully vaccinated by May of 2021, the US superseded its goal. Since that time, an additional 75 million people have reached a fully vaccinated status, equating to about 53.6% of the countries population. A seemingly high number, especially in such a short period.
A deep sigh began to spread through varied swatches of communities as the numbers were starting to look promising. New cases were steadily dropping. Hospitals began to see a decrease in the daily flow of people, along with a similar decline in the number of people put to rest, as death rates began to drop. Things began to feel...
Sacramento followed a similar path as the rest of the country, seeing cases drop exponentially starting in March. As the vaccine continued to roll out, the numbers held. There were some days where there were less than 100 new cases reported, and some days there were no new cases at all.
Combining the dwindling case numbers with hordes of anti-mask, anti-mandate, anti-vax crusaders on a (now) defunct Gubernatorial recall campaign, and it didn't take much to figure out was coming next. In mid-June entire state of California removed the mask mandates and the public restrictions for gatherings. The state was effectively re-open.
Six months after the initial vaccine shot pierced skin, California restaurants were back to indoor dining. Venues began to open the doors to live performances. Festivals began rolling out their Back-from-Corona line-ups on social media. People were walking around for the first time in over a year like they could hug, dance, and dine with friends. They got to catch up and laugh together.
Lurking in the shadows of the alleged normalcy was the Delta.
Found in December of last year, the variant rapidly spread from India to Great Britain, eventually making its way to the US and beyond. According to CDC reports the rapid contagion rate, combined with far more severe symptoms that affect a wider range of people makes this new mutation a powerful, and potentially more deadly threat than ever before.
It was the rapid spread of the Delta that urged the CDC to release updated guidance stating that regardless of vaccination status, the public was being urged (or mandated depending on the state) to wear masks in public. They could no longer ignore that the numbers were spiking all over the country.
Here in Sacramento, the average skyrocketed from 53 new cases a day to 388, and with each passing week, the average steadily rose. Hospitals began to fill up. Cases were being reported in people far younger and far healthier than previously seen, with their symptoms presenting as far worse.
And then Sacramento re-opened the schools.
CHILDREN OF THE CORONA
So why did the schools open? A combination of factors went into the choice of moving classes from the sterile, COVID-free Zoom environment back to in-person.
In 2020 there was a marked increase in mental health issues stemming from the severe and abrupt isolation. Students went from spending nine months a year surrounded by hundreds of students, to spend that time in their same room, in their same house, and more often than not the same pajamas they had been in for days. A lack of interaction in online class formats coupled with the inability to form traditional connections with peers was taking a severe toll on kids of all ages.
Yet it was the fevered attempt of California's far-right to recall Governor Gavin Newsom, and the city's inability to make money without students in their desks daily that also played a large (if not larger) role in the too-soon-for-comfort opening of the schools.
Regardless of the reasoning, students were back in person. Masks were required at all times. Cleaning crews were called in round the clock to sterilize and clean rooms, kitchens, gyms, and equipment. Teachers were required to be vaccinated. All of the proper precautions were being taken.
Except for one important factor being left out.
In Sacramento County, as of a 2021 report, the population crested a little over 1.5 million people. Of that 1.5 million, roughly 200,000 are school-age children between the ages of 5 and 12. Children who are still not eligible to receive any version of the vaccine available on the market.
With some schools starting as early August, and all schools fully open by September 2nd, teachers and students held their proverbial breath under their masked faces as they streamed down hallways in droves.
BACK TO LIFE, BACK TO REALITY
Have you, or someone close to you, been exposed to someone with COVID in the last 7 days?
For nearly 10 hours I asked that question as people streamed through the line at the testing site. A partner and I sat behind a fold-out table in the middle of an empty playroom of a community center, gently prying into people's lives.
Date of birth?
Any known symptoms in the last 7 days?
What kind of test do you need, rapid or PCR?
All things noted down and documented as we checked nearly 1500 people in to get a swab gently swirled around their nostrils in hopes of a negative result.
But it was asking the have you or someone close to you been exposed question that revealed the most. Nearly every parent or guardian seemed to say the same thing. They had received a phone call from the school that day saying that someone in their children's class caught COVID. Even more revealing was the seemingly across-the-board response the parents received from the schools themselves.
"They want us to get a rapid test to prove that our kid doesn't have COVID so they can go back to class. They won't let them back without the results," a frustrated mom answered as she took a deep sigh, "and I can't go back to work if they can't go back to school, so here we are!"
While that seems like a necessary precaution, there is an inherent flaw in the logic. The rapid test, which gives the person results in 30 minutes is only about 75% percent accurate. According to recent findings, the likelihood of receiving a false negative is more than double the likelihood of receiving a false positive. While the idea of not returning to school without a negative result makes sense in theory, in practice they are sending children to get the tests the same day exposure is reported. Which makes very little sense, as it takes a few days for the virus to present in the system.
"I've gotten six calls since August 15th about possible exposures," Sacramento resident Devin Bruce recalls.
"So far I've gotten a call fifteen times since we started back up on August 11th," parent and West Sacramento teacher Damian Harmony recounts, "and people are acting like this is somehow a surprise, and/or it's just the price of going back to normal. That it's unavoidable. They don’t understand what normal is, it seems. because this isn’t it. Same with unavoidable since they made no provisions to avoid it."
"Not only have we gotten calls about our kids being exposed, but at the Transportation Department they're popping up with COVID regularly, and drivers are being told that if they are vaccinated and have been exposed, they don't need to quarantine," parent Elizabeth Uribe laments, "not only that but the bus drivers are being told that if a student refuses to wear a mask, to just have them sit in the back and open the windows. It feels like they are using our kids as guinea pigs."
Parents are not only frustrated, it also seems they are left with very little recourse. Zoom classes are now a thing of the past, regardless of the current infection rates. They are either left with the choice of sending their kids to school in the hopes of not receiving the "your child's been exposed" call, they are being told to enroll their child into an independent studies program (most of which are now full and have lengthy waiting lists), or they can remove their kids completely and homeschool them.
Even with the options available, it is the consequences of those choices that can weigh heavily.
"We haven't had an exposure yet but I'm terrified," parent and advocate Crystal Sanchez explained, "because my daughter is high risk already. She had 3 major surgeries already and is only 8... but they said if we chose to do homeschooling, she loses her space at her regular school."
Parents are left feeling lost, children are constantly being exposed and the city's main concern seems to be that the students are in the seats to ensure their budgets aren't affected.
Or maybe that's just my lousy sense of dread talking. Normally at the end of my articles, there is some sort of conclusion or resolution. Maybe I find the silver lining deep in the crevices, or someone in the story helps me see it buried beneath the layers. But the more I wrote out this story though, the further from an end I felt. In the end it simply became an exercise to make it make sense. Thus far? It doesn't.
And as I sat in that empty playroom, scanning rapid test after rapid test for parents that streamed through the doors, all I could do was stare at the whiteboard across from me. Blank, but for one message, scrawled in a green felt board marker by an unknown hand.
"We're so happy you're here."
With new cases reported daily and new mutations such as the Mu and the Lambda strains already here or making their way to the United States...
It feels like we are going to be here a while.