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Portland infectious disease doctor weighs in on schools and the omicron variant

Dr. Katie Sharff is an infectious disease physician for Kaiser Permanente Northwest. She's also a mom of two elementary school-age kids.

PORTLAND, Ore. — As the omicron variant forces school districts to consider changes, Dr. Katie Sharff, an infectious disease specialist for Kaiser Northwest, is watching the situation closely.

Sharff is not only a physician; she's a mom to two kids — Alexa, who is in first grade, and Grant, who is in third. They're learning at school in person as the omicron variant surges and schools continue to juggle in-person learning and safety measures 

“We're in a tough situation right now, here in Oregon and across the country,” said Sharff. 

She said while omicron appears to be more mild than other variants, it's much more contagious. That’s concerning for those working in education and health care. 

Sharff said there are many people in Oregon who are still not vaccinated and if thousands of people continue to get sick, she said it’ll overwhelm health care systems, which are already struggling. 

For schools, a more contagious COVID variant like omicron could mean more people out sick, further straining schools dealing with staffing shortages.

RELATED: No new restrictions planned for Portland metro counties despite omicron wave

In fact, this week the top education official in Oregon, Department of Education director Colt Gill, said it's likely schools could move back to remote learning if there are too many cases. 

Beaverton School District announced it had to pause its Test-to-Stay program, which allows students to stay in school if they test negative for COVID, because there wasn’t enough staff to keep it running.

Dr. Sharff said testing is an important tool for preventing community spread.

“When you can't operationalize these tools, it's just that many more people out in the community who may have asymptomatic infection who […] inadvertently spreading illness,” said Sharff.

But she said there are many tools to keep families and kids safe. Both of her kids are vaccinated. At the same time, she has the understanding that almost everything involves some level of risk.

“I think that that being in school and their social well-being is super important and critical for their overall health. That being said, when I make decisions about which activities I partake in, which extracurriculars, it really is a risk-benefits decision.”

Sharff said if there is one thing she’d like to communicate to people right now, it's that all the safety precautions people have followed in the pandemic continue to work: vaccines, wearing a mask and physical distancing.

RELATED: Air quality expert says ditch cloth for N-95 masks

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