By Everett Brazil, III
The Newkirk Herald Journal
NEWKIRK — Newkirk Public Schools (NPS) and the city of Newkirk have seen a rise in COVID-19 Omicron cases and implications, leading both entities to temporarily alter operations to address the growing concern of new cases.
NPS and the city both announced the operational changes Wednesday, Jan. 12.
NPS remained in session for the week, but was monitoring cases. Most were primarily at the high school.
“At the elementary and middle school, we have very few cases, and really haven’t seen an impact at these two schools with COVID-19,” said NPS Superintendent Scott Kempenich Thursday, Jan. 13. “At the high school, however, we had approximately 50 students that are out of school with COVID-like symptoms.”
Kempenich said that equated to about 20 percent of the high school’s student body.
The administration cancelled or rescheduled all after-school activities for the rest of the week, including home wrestling bouts Thursday and Friday, as well as middle school basketball games Thursday and high school games Friday.
“We have students that tested positive or had COVID-like symptoms who would be instrumental in participating in those events that would have made it hard to hold those events,” Kempenich said.
Although the school didn’t close, administrators and staff are still monitoring the situation, and may temporarily take advantage of virtual learning.
“As of right now, the only things changing are the games for this week, and we are changing the dates of the events,” Kempenich said.
Offices for the city of Newkirk closed to the public, but otherwise continued operating as normal. Representatives at city hall were willing to meet with concerned citizens outside the office.
“We (were) closed to the public until Tuesday.,” Deputy City Clerk Pam Peters said.
The Newkirk Public Library’s drop box was open, and librarians were able to address patron’s needs at the back door.
The Senior Center also closed, but still provided drive-through meals for the seniors. Senior Center patrons also received COVID goody bags, which included bacterial hand soap, wipes and sanitizer, along with snacks and fruit.
“They’ve all had their vaccines and had their boosters, but it is better to keep them safe at their age, so we’re going back to drive-through lunches to keep them well,” Center Director Serena Welch said.
Omicron is only the latest COVID-19 variant affecting the United States. The previous variant, Delta, was deadlier, but Omicron is more transmissible, with even vaccinated individuals contracting the disease.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) released a report Wednesday, Jan. 12, highlighting recent trends in the state.
“Eighty percent of those that are hospitalized are unvaccinated,” said OSDH District Three Public Information Officer Scott Haywood. District Three includes Kay, Osage, Noble, Pawnee, Payne, Creek and Lincoln counties. “Out of all cases that are breakthrough cases, those people that are vaccinated, 80 percent are those that have not had their booster shot.”
More vaccinated individuals are contracting the disease due to how spreadable the Omicron variant is, and that relates to how the virus can attach to the body.
“There are a number of different mutations on the Omicron as opposed to the Delta variant,” Haywood said. “Viruses have little spikes, and those spikes can attach to the (tissue), and the idea is to stop the spike growth. That is the idea in investing in RNA vaccines – Pfizer and Moderna.”
Viral disease is caused by a viral load, or the number of viruses in the body. Because the Omicron variant has more spikes than other virus variants, more viruses are attaching to tissue, leading to high cases in vaccinated individuals, especially those who don’t have their booster shots. Those cases are known as “breakthroughs.”
“The severity of the infection is dependent upon the viral load you have. The higher your viral load, you’re going to be very sick,” Haywood said. “There is a chance for break-throughs, and we have seen some with Omicron.”
Omicron symptoms are similar to other COVID-19 variant symptoms, including fever, chills, loss of taste or smell and aches. Symptoms for vaccinated victims are typically less severe.
“If you’re vaccinated, and are a break-through case, you’re going to have symptoms of a cold,” Haywood said.
Masks are highly recommended to help stop the spread, although a medical or N-95 type of mask is recommended over a cloth variety.
“Omicron is virulent, and (cloth masks) won’t filter it out,” Haywood said. “The viral load on it is generally much higher.”
NPS and the city of Newkirk were once again open Tuesday, Jan. 18. NPS will continue to monitor the situation, and isn’t leaving out the possibility of virtual learning, should the need arise.
“We plan on being in school and operational. We feel this is the best opportunity for our students,” Kempenich said. “We may eventually go virtual, or close for the day, if we get to a point where we cannot operate at a regular school setting.”
The peak for Omicron is not expected until the end of the month, and healthcare experts are simply asking the public to do their part to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.
“If you’re not vaccinated yet, please start considering. If you’re vaccinated and don’t have your booster yet, please get your booster,” Haywood said. “Please be kind to healthcare workers. We’re struggling, but we’re going to make it.”
By Everett Brazil, III