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Arlington recommends doubling CDC’s quarantine period for child care

Arlington County Health Director Dr. Reuben Varghese in March 2020 (via Arlington County)

Local child care centers will have to stay the course with longer quarantine and isolation periods, says Arlington County’s Public Health Division.

That could mean multiple contingency plans for parents with kids in child care, who have already weathered holiday closures and winter-weather closures. (Many facilities follow the snow closure or delay lead of Arlington Public Schools, which was closed all week.)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened isolation and quarantine periods last month to five days for the general population. This week, the CDC announced it will be bringing its guidelines for K-12 schools in alignment with the shortened quarantine and isolation.

But the changes have been met with some criticism. The American Medical Association called them “confusing and counterproductive” and other medical providers have said they’re “reckless.”

There’s one place where the new quarantine and isolation guidelines won’t go into effect, save for fully vaccinated and boosted staff: Arlington’s child care settings.

That’s because Arlington’s littlest kids either should not wear a mask or do not wear them reliably, meaning the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant is highly likely in these settings, according to the public health division.

“A full 10-day isolation and quarantine period was recommended because of the difficulty to enforce mask wearing in such a young population (i.e. children under 2 years old should not wear a mask),” Public Health spokesman Ryan Hudson told ARLnow.

The interim guidance came out Wednesday, as Arlington and the Northern Virginia region continue to see high levels of COVID-19 transmission, and will be in effect until the CDC comes out with guidance specific to child care settings — which are known as places where kids pick up all kinds of germs.

“The CDC’s recent updates to shorten the isolation and quarantine period are for the general population, including K-12 school settings,” Hudson said. “In absence of specific guidance from the CDC regarding child care centers, Arlington County Public Health provided interim guidelines, subject to change based on updates from the CDC.”

One local child care provider that had started implementing the new CDC guidance acknowledged the flip-flop may cause disruption for families.

“We had been following the recent CDC 5 day isolation period, which we confirmed with [the Virginia] Department of Health last week,” the facility’s director wrote. “However, in light of the omicron variant and the current surge, Arlington County has recently announced interim guidelines for child care settings which we must follow. We understand that this recent change is frustrating but we are our trying our best to follow the policies, which do keep changing.”

Pre-pandemic child care was in short supply in Arlington, as it was in many parts of the country, in part because of a shortage of child care workers. The pandemic has exacerbated these realities and forced many parents, especially mothers, to quit their jobs.

Board Chair Katie Cristol, who has worked on a number of efforts to fight the local child care shortage, says she’s still learning about the new recommendations and the tensions that public health professionals and child care providers have to navigate right now.

But the biggest challenge facing child care providers during the pandemic remains staffing, which the guidelines could exacerbate.

“From my conversations with providers, their biggest challenges over the last year have been with staffing,” Cristol said. “I think this reflects the general upheaval in the labor market, as well as the ongoing difficulty of affording high-quality staff in a very low-margin business, and — at least anecdotally — the challenge of recruiting and retaining staff seems to be making it hard for some providers to expand hours or capacity as they try to adjust back to ‘normal’ after the first year of the pandemic.”

To boost child care employee recruitment during this time, the county has provided training and is working with the local Richmond delegation to pass legislation that would improve how benefits like retirement and health care get to employees.

“It remains a big challenge, for certain,” she said.

The county also supports centers through ongoing health consultations and informational resources, and has run targeted vaccination clinics for child care providers and employees, Cristol noted.

The new Arlington Public Health guidelines for local child care providers are below.

Isolation for cases (people who test positive) in Child Care Settings only

In childcare settings, Arlington County Health Department recommends a full 10-day isolation period for those who test positive (with a return on day 11). This is because isolation can only end after day 5 IF strict mask wearing is adhered to for an additional 5 days. It is difficult to enforce mask wearing in such a young population, and childcare centers are high risk settings for transmission. Given this, Arlington County Health Department recommends a full 10-days staying home from the childcare location. This applies to both students and staff who test positive.

Quarantine for close contacts (people who are exposed to someone with COVID-19) in Child Care Settings only

In childcare settings, Arlington County Health Department recommends a full 10-day quarantine period for those who are exposed to COVID (with a return on day 11). This is because quarantine can only end after day 5 IF strict mask wearing is adhered to for an additional 5 days. It is difficult to enforce mask wearing in such a young population, and childcare centers are high risk settings for transmission. Given this, Arlington County Health Department recommends a full 10-days staying home from the childcare location after being exposed to COVID. This applies to both students and staff.

Additional Guidance:

Staff who are fully vaccinated AND boosted do not need to quarantine. This would include those who are:

  • Less than 6 months out but more than 2 weeks out from their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna, or less than 2 months out but more than 2 weeks out from J&J
  • More than 6 months out from second dose of Pfizer or Moderna or more than 2 months out from J&J but have received a booster vaccine and it has been more than 2 weeks since they received the booster

In the event a child or staff member is experiencing COVID-like illness and cannot access a test, they should stay home and isolate for 10 days from the date their symptoms started.

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