Omicron Goes Viral

An Inside Glance on the Most Recent COVID-19 Variant


infographic by emma phillips

With the recent announcement that Madison schools were to go virtual for a week and another announcement that the original decision was to be rescinded, students and staff members wonder alike; what’s really going on with the Stoughton district right now?
“We try to balance protecting the physical health of our community, including students and staff; continuing to meet educational goals; and protecting everyone’s mental health,” SHS school board president Frank Sullivan says. Sullivan has been the school board president since 2018 as well the Assistant Attorney General for the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
Sullivan shares some of the actions the SHS school board has taken against the spike in COVID-19 numbers throughout the district due to the Omicron variant.
“We govern by policy. That means that we give the administration a broad set of criteria to work under, then stand back and let them make the day-to-day decisions. We’ve given the administration the authority to take whatever health precautions are necessary, including closing a school down or even closing the entire district down if they think it’s necessary. […] We still may see other schools close if the […] amount of close contacts becomes too high,” Sullivan says.
Though people may be unsure of the absolute proper protocols to help students and staff while also preserving their mental health, the school board is staying positive in going forwards and as Sullivan says, we’ve made so much progress up to this point.
“We’ve learned a lot about prevention in the past two years, whether you are talking about vaccinations, masks, lavish use of hand sanitizer, social distancing, quarantining, or physical modifications to buildings. All of those things help to slow the spread and lessen the likelihood of infection,” Sullivan says. “If people become infected, it seems like vaccinations make them less sick for less time, but we’re still learning. We are in better shape than we were two years ago.”
Sullivan explains that with the rise in numbers taking over the district as well as neighboring districts, the school board has delegated PPE decision-making to administration within the schools. He remarks that he wishes things could be different, that circumstances were simpler, but in this world, we’re far from it.
“We do discuss COVID-19 at our meetings, and we get regular updates from Dr. Onsager. We’ve told him that we expect the district to operate within CDC guidelines and within the guidelines established by Dane County Public Health,” Sullivan says. “[…] I wish everyone was vaccinated. I wish everyone would go along with masking requirements. I wish everyone would be more aggressive about keeping themselves and their community safe. I think that most of the community understands [this] need and are doing the best they can.”
In addition to getting an inside look at our school board, Dr. Virginia Mattis, Associate Director of Therapeutics R&D at a Madison-based biotech company, was also able to get a first-hand opinion from a scientist, who has a deeper understanding of the risks that COVID-19 displays.
Mattis gave the Norse Star an inside glance on the workings of the Omicron variant as well as the proper safety measures to take against this virus. Furthermore, as a scientist, Mattis is also a parent of two young children and shares her opinions on how the Madison district and neighboring districts are handling the rise in infection.
“Although I am not a physician, I do understand the biological side of viral transmission and the health implications,” Mattis says. “Scientists, physicians and epidemiologists all over the world are currently studying why the Omicron appears to be more transmissible than other variants. […] Viruses mutate, this is a normal part of viral evolution. This is why you get a different flu vaccine every year. The more we can control people getting sick, then the less opportunity for new variants to arise.”
Mattis regards the CDC guidelines, as well, taking into account the recent change in quarantine times from five days over to 10 days with infection.
“The CDC guidelines are changing based upon real-time information. There is some skepticism about why the guidelines keep changing, but it is simply because the CDC is working hard to keep up with current knowledge,” Mattis says.
She also offers advice on what type of mask is most effective against the virus as according to the CDC, saying that if possible, people should wear N95 or KN95 masks.
“It is most important to have several layers that are well fitted to your face, if you cannot get a N95,” Mattis says. As a parent of two children going to school right now, Mattis has a unique point of view on how the school districts are acting according to COVID-19 guidelines.
“There are many things to consider here, from the safety of the staff and the students, to the importance of education, to the socio-economic issues of food insecurity and lack of child care. I feel that the school board is doing the best they can in a very difficult time,” Mattis says.