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Howard County schools are updating their COVID policies following new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC released new guidelines last week that shorten the isolation time for those who test positive for the virus. New guidance recommends a five-day isolation period, followed by another five days of mask-wearing. Previously, the isolation window was 10 days.

Kokomo, Taylor and Western school corporations have added new language to their re-entry plans, which detail COVID protocols. Other schools are expected to follow suit.

The decision to shorten isolation time was met with criticism and confusion. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Friday in an interview with Today that those who test positive are most contagious in the first couple days before symptoms appear, and up to three days after.

Jennifer Sexton, public health nursing manager for the Howard County Health Department, said this is one of the main differences of the omicron variant. Most COVID variants are in the four-to-seven-day range when contagiousness is at its highest. Omicron is more compressed.

“The reason it’s changing isn’t willy nilly,” Sexton said of the new guidance. “It’s changing because the science is changing.”

The new isolation guidelines do not impact other school-specific COVID policies. Taylor and Western are still allowing students an in-school quarantine option if they are asymptomatic. Other area schools, including Tipton and Tri-Central, also have an in-school quarantine option.

Isolation is for those who test positive. Quarantine is for close contacts.

The Howard County Health Department still recommends universal masking by students indoors. Sexton said the in-school option isn’t consistent with current guidance.

The current COVID situation is “rough,” according to Sexton, who said the county has averaged about 200 cases per day for the past three days.

Which variants people are testing positive for isn’t immediately clear due to the nature of the tests. However, Sexton said omicron is likely.

“We have been seeing signs omicron is in Indiana, and we don’t think it’d be all that different here,” she said.

Omicron has shown a tendency to infect those who are vaccinated, but not nearly at the rate it infects the unvaccinated. Sexton said it further highlights the importance of getting vaccinated — and quickly.

The longer that more people are unvaccinated, the more likely future variants will evade vaccines.

A study released by the CDC on Friday found that vaccines are highly effective at preventing COVID-related death and hospitalizations. While some vaccinated people might develop severe COVID symptoms or die, they were all found to have risk factors, such as being older than 65 or being immunosuppressed.

The effects of omicron to appear to be less severe.

“We do believe omicron is less likely to put people in the hospital or cause death,” Sexton said.

A less lethal variant can still overwhelm hospitals.

When infections increase dramatically, deaths and hospitalizations will also increase. Sexton said it’s simply a numbers game.

Spencer Durham can be reached at 765-454-8598, by email at spencer.durham@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at @Durham_KT.

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