Missouri students will swab themselves as K-12 schools start free COVID testing

(The Center Square) – In addition to learning to line up for lunch, some Missouri students will soon learn how to swab their nostrils to detect a COVID-19 infection.

The Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) will begin enrolling any school or district providing in-person instruction – including charter and private schools – in a free program to test for COVID-19 infections. All consenting students in classrooms from kindergarten through high school will swab their noses and the swabs will be gathered in a batch for a single test. Twelve schools enrolled for the program during the first two days it was available.

A DESE document states testing a group of 5 to 25 individuals should take about 12 minutes of classroom time per week and teachers are not required to play a role in administering the tests. With students younger than 12 still ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, the scalable and regular testing might become a key element of a school’s mitigation strategy to ensure a predictable learning environment.

“We believe this testing program, when combined with additional prevention strategies, will be instrumental in helping schools provide safe onsite learning opportunities and increasing confidence of parents and families,” Robert Knodell, acting director of DHSS, said in a statement.

DHSS reports showed 44% of Missourians – 2.7 million – fully vaccinated and 51% initiated the vaccination process. In the 12- to 14-year-old age group, 25.4% are fully vaccinated and 34.8% have one dose. In the 15- to 24-year-old age group, 42% are fully vaccinated and 33.6% started the process.

In March, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allocated $10 billion from the American Rescue Plan to increase screening testing to help schools reopen. About $2.5 billion was designated for underserved populations and to provide new guidance on asymptomatic screening testing in schools, workplaces, and congregate settings. Missouri received about $185 million from the allocation.

“Screening testing identifies infected people, including those with or without symptoms (or before development of symptoms) who may be contagious, so that measures can be taken to prevent further transmission,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s published guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools. “In K-12 schools, screening testing can help promptly identify and isolate cases, quarantine those who may have been exposed to COVID-19 and are not fully vaccinated, and identify clusters to reduce the risk to in-person education. CDC guidance provides that people who are fully vaccinated do not need to participate in screening testing and do not need to quarantine if they do not have any symptoms.”

The state will partner with Ginkgo Bioworks Inc. to provide the pooled testing through Concentric, also a Ginkgo company. The program will continue throughout the 2021-2022 school year. Laboratory and testing services are provided in partnership with local Missouri labs. The pooled testing is completed within 48 hours, according to Ginkgo’s website. Schools receive results from a secure website and identify any necessary actions.

A pilot program was previously executed and students, teachers, nurses and school administrators describe the testing process as simple and painless.

“After this past school year, students and families are ready to get back to full in-person school and all the extra-curriculars, support services and socializing that entails,” Margie Vandeven, commissioner of education, said in a statement. “This regular testing is one more strategy to help keep our students safe and our school doors open.”

In addition to testing, DESE and DHSS collaborated with infectious disease physicians from around the state to develop advisory recommendations, including vaccinations, symptom screening, physical distancing and facility improvements, mask/face coverings, hand hygiene, use of personal protective equipment, and guidelines for monitoring return to school after illness.

“Asymptomatic testing provides critical information to educators, public health leaders and community members,” Matthew McKnight, chief commercial officer at Ginkgo, said in a statement. “Each of us at Concentric is committed to supporting communities as they work to keep kids in classrooms and COVID out this fall.”

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