Need for pooled testing in schools is not disappearing

CIC Health officials predict COVID testing will continue this fall

VACCINES MAY BE here, but the need for COVID-19 testing is not going away any time soon.

That’s the prediction of Tim Rowe, the CEO of CIC Health, a private company that has been overseeing COVID-19 testing programs and also running mass vaccination sites in Massachusetts.

“We are going to have a period of time where not everyone has the vaccine,” Rowe said. “And it’s a little unclear what younger age groups will yet have the vaccine. And we have a world which is going to have storming COVID.” Rowe said the current forecast is it will take four years for the world to reach herd immunity, which means there is the possibility of new virus strains developing in other countries and migrating to the US.

“So if you are a policymaker making a plan for the fall and you want kids in school and you want to get us back to something like the economy that we had prior to the pandemic, you probably want to have in place a system that you know is going to work to track is there disease spreading?” Rowe said. “If it’s spreading, what strains are they? And if there’s a significant population which is not protected by vaccines – and that may be a lot of the kids in this country – you want to make sure that they’re not spreading that disease within society.”

Rowe and CIC Health’s head of pooled testing Bill Jacobson appeared on The Codcast to talk about Massachusetts’ pooled testing programs in schools. CIC Health is one of three companies that provides testing for K-12 public schools under a statewide program. It also provides testing to individuals, private schools, and camps. While testing is slowing down statewide as the virus becomes less prevalent and more adults are getting vaccinated, Rowe and Jacobson said school testing has increased as more schools return to full-time in-person learning.

“This is viewed as a way of making sure that this one part of society, which is not yet fully protected, is not becoming a vector for spread, and really to encourage parents to send their kids back to school,” Rowe said.

According to Jacobson, CIC Health is testing around 50,000 students and staff a week at 500 Massachusetts public schools. The way pooled testing works is a sample is taken through a shallow nose swab, then two to ten samples are combined and sent to the lab. If a lab detects COVID, each person in the pool will be tested individually. If the sample is negative, it’s a quick and cheap way to rule out COVID in several people at once.

Pooled testing at schools and summer camps is paid for entirely by the federal government. Rowe said the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, which processes the tests, charges $50 a test. So with 10 samples in a pooled test, that comes out to $5 a test.

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Shira Schoenberg

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About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Jacobson said the positivity rate so far has been “quite low” and shows there is not significant transmission within school buildings.  On average, every school gets a positive pool once every five weeks. As of April 5, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said the rate of positive tests across the entire pooled testing program was 0.8 percent.

Jacobson said the goal is to make COVID testing “a highly efficient system” that takes a couple of minutes out of a student’s school day. “We are imagining that this will continue into the fall and we want there to be a world where there doesn’t need to be a Zoom school along with an in-person school,” Jacobson said. “So having a highly efficient assurance testing plan is a way to make sure that even if different strains or different items happen that we just can’t foresee, we’ll be able to detect them and take some action depending on whatever the future brings.”