MASSACHUSETTS HEALTH and education officials acknowledged on Thursday that “logistical challenges” led to a delayed rollout of the state’s COVID-19 testing program in schools, but they said the problems, which were primarily attributable to low staffing, are being addressed.
“As is often the case when developing a bold new idea – in this case, test and stay – there were logistical challenges during the initial ramp up, including significant staff recruitment difficulties and demand that far exceeded expectations,” said Marylou Sudders, the secretary of health and human services, in testimony submitted to legislative committees dealing with emergency preparedness, public health, and education.
Jeff Riley, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said only 28 of the 327 districts doing testing have not yet reported any tests, and he said some of those districts only recently launched their programs.
CommonWealth previously reported that the state’s pooled testing program faced delays in getting off the ground, apparently due to staffing shortages at CIC Health, the private company hired by the state to do the testing.
The state is offering schools access to three types of testing: test and stay, in which a student exposed to COVID-19 in school can take daily rapid tests rather than quarantining; rapid testing for kids who start showing symptoms in school; and pooled testing, which is routine weekly surveillance testing to catch cases before children or staff show symptoms. As of October 1, state officials said almost all schools had gotten the rapid tests. But several districts complained that they had not yet been able to begin pooled testing.
Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s committees on public health and COVID-19 preparedness, revealed at the hearing that state education officials and CIC Health officials participated in “a very painful webinar with school superintendents where they detailed in significant measures the way the relationship with CIC Health has in many ways been a failure in Western Massachusetts.”
On October 12, Baker announced that he was authorizing the deployment of up to 200 members of the National Guard to help give COVID tests at schools beginning this past Monday. There are now 11 districts where the National Guard is assisting. Some are in Western Massachusetts, including Central Berkshire, Greenfield, Hampden-Wilbraham, and Northampton.
At Thursday’s legislative hearing, Riley acknowledged that CIC Health had trouble staffing up. But he said the company has “made significant progress the last several weeks.”
According to Sudders, more than 800 new people were hired over the past month, bringing the total staff available for school testing up to 2,000, in addition to the National Guard.
There are 2,200 public and private schools signed up for testing – a number that state officials say vastly exceeded their expectations.
According to state figures, fewer than 1 percent of pools have tested positive since pooled testing started in February, and the individual positivity rate is lower, since each pool contains multiple people.
Riley said Massachusetts has been a national leader in implementing a test and stay program. The CDC said this week that is evaluating the effectiveness of test and stay as an alternative to quarantine.