STATE OFFICIALS ARE rolling out a rapid testing program in 134 school districts, where students who show symptoms of COVID-19 will be able to get test results in just 15 minutes.
Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said testing will help schools “identify infected individuals and close contacts more quickly and stop the spread.”
Riley said while news about potential vaccines is promising, it is unlikely children will get the vaccine this academic year, and steps must be taken to keep as many students in school as possible. “It’s clear the virus will be with us for a while,” Riley said.
The US Department of Health and Human Services announced in late October that it would send 2.07 million Abbott BinaxNOW COVID-19 antigen tests to Massachusetts. The federal government purchased the first 150 million tests to distribute them to states, which can use them for education, nursing homes, first responders, or other priorities.
The tests, which cost $5 apiece and must be administered by a health professional, involve collecting a sample with a short nasal swab, then inserting the swab into a card, which delivers a result in 15 minutes. They are approved by the federal government for use on people with symptoms, not for surveillance testing of asymptomatic people.
Under Massachusetts’s plan, the 134 school districts that volunteered for the program had to meet certain criteria – they need to adhere to reporting requirements, get parental consent to administer tests, and ensure staff are trained. The tests will be free to the schools and available December 1.
Riley said the tests will be used in cases when a child develops symptoms at school, so the child can be tested quickly and close contacts can be notified. If a student tests positive, they will still have to get a confirmatory PCR test, which is considered the gold standard in testing. The rapid test will guide decisions on whether to send a child home and who else needs to quarantine.
Riley said he has not seen evidence of COVID-19 transmission in schools, but students and staff can bring the virus in from the community. As of November 11, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported 185 students and 157 staff had tested positive.
State officials tried out the BinaxNOW test at a Lawrence testing site. Volunteers had swabs processed by both the BinaxNOW test and a PCR test. Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said the rapid tests successfully detected COVID-19 in children 79 percent of the time and in adults 97 percent of the time. Only five tests – a rate of three per 1,000 people – produced false positives. “Both on sensitivity and specificity, we’re pleased with the results across 1,600 tests,” Sudders said, referring to measures of true positives and true negatives.
Also at Baker’s press conference Wednesday, the governor announced new guidelines for higher education testing. Baker said all college students leaving campus for Thanksgiving should take a COVID-19 test administered by their university within 72 hours of their departure. Students who return should produce a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours.
Any traveler coming to Massachusetts, including students, continues to be subject to the state’s travel restriction, which requires them to quarantine for 14 days or produce a negative COVID-19 test result taken within 72 hours prior to their arrival. For now, travelers from all states except Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, or Vermont must quarantine or take a test. That information is updated each Friday, and Sudders said she expects two of the New England states – she did not specify which – would be taken off the low-risk list this week.
Baker continued to urge Massachusetts residents not to gather over Thanksgiving. State rules limit indoor gatherings to 10 people. “If we treat this year like we treat every other Thanksgiving, quite likely it will trigger significant spread, which leads to serious illness for many and in rare cases death, especially among senior citizens,” Baker said. “This virus thrives in indoor social environments when people let down their guard.”
Baker said he worries about the impact of Thanksgiving on the second surge. But he did push back against those comparing high case numbers today – with the state consistently reporting over 2,000 daily new cases – with similar numbers in March in April. In the spring, he said, stringent requirements around who could get a test meant the state was only capturing a fraction of coronavirus cases, generally the sickest individuals, while now, testing is more widely available.
On other topics:
- Sudders said the Department of Public Health changed its guidelines requiring someone exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine for 14 days. Now, someone can leave quarantine after 10 days if they have no symptoms and get a negative PCR test on or after day eight.
- Baker was asked about long lines at the state’s free testing locations. He expressed frustration that the lines appear to be due to people travelling for Thanksgiving. “There’s not much at this point we can do other than to say we think that’s not a great idea and urge people if they do do that to recognize and understand that a test is not a Kevlar vest. It’s a moment in time,” Baker said. Baker said there are 250 COVID-19 testing sites in Massachusetts, including the 18 free Stop the Spread sites, and most tests are covered by insurance.
- Asked about a report by the US Department of Justice, which found that the state Department of Correction violated prisoners’ rights by not providing adequate mental health care, Baker said, “We are going to implement every recommendation that’s in there.” “This is a fail that needs to get fixed,” he said.
- On whether he is rethinking his support for the Transportation and Climate Initiative, Baker said he is still “very much a fan” of the program, but the states involved are talking about changing transportation circumstances in light of the pandemic.