Role of school rapid testing debated

IT WAS THE end of March when the state’s Department of Public Health began reporting more than 1,000 new cases of coronavirus daily. Schools were shuttered, students were home, and infrastructure to gauge and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 did not exist. The phrases “rapid testing” and “contact tracing” were unknown by the American public. Flash forward seven months, and there are systems that exist to soften the blow as cases rise to over 1,000 for the fifth day in a row. 

But tools like rapid testing must be ready to be implemented swiftly, with cohesion, statewide. Since August, the Baker administration has said it has a rapid testing program planned for school outbreaks, modeled after a program the National Guard conducted at nursing homes this spring.

The idea is that the tests would be made available to any school that meets specific criteria, like having two or more students in the same classroom test positive within two weeks, or if more than 3 percent of a school’s student population develops COVID-19 in 14 days and there’s evidence of transmission at the school.

The 70 percent of public school districts that have reopened completely in-person or with a hybrid model do not appear to be “superspreaders,” or places where one infected person has infected many. Gov. Charlie Baker has held up parochial schools as an example of thousands of students returning safely to the classroom.

But the number of positive cases began to climb significantly last week. Massachusetts is expecting about 2 million rapid tests for use in public school districts from the federal government’s agreement with Abbott BinaxNOW. The nasal swab test has a turnaround time of 15 minutes. The tests will be used for symptomatic students and staff. 

The initial rollout is intended for districts providing hybrid or full in-person services and schools with onsite community health centers that can support the administration of the tests. Districts interested in the testing must fill out a survey by October 30.

Two million tests may not go that far. In 2019, there were over 950,600 students enrolled in public K-12 schools. Another 87,000 either attend private and parochial schools, or are homeschooled. These numbers do not include teachers, bus drivers, or operations staff, which surely number in the many thousands. 

Some educators are saying targeted testing of symptomatic students and staff is fine, but it falls short of what will likely be necessary as the number of red zone municipalities continues to grow.

“I have one big ask today — I actually characterize it as a beg,” said Anne McKenzie, the superintendent of the 500-student Hadley School District, during a legislative hearing this week. “I would like to see a statewide surveillance testing program for K-12 schools. A comprehensive statewide surveillance testing program could offer the ability to identify infected individuals before an outbreak occurs.” 

The cost could be staggering to districts, which is why McKenzie urged legislators and the Baker administration to work with medical experts to find a rapid test that is both cost-effective and reliable. From her own shopping around, she calculated that one type of saliva test, at $20 per unit, would cost her tiny district $340,000 to test staff and students once a week for the rest of the school year. But when she looked at another test costing about $5 the cost dropped to around $80,000. 

There is no statewide program for surveillance testing, but instead a coalition of a dozen school districts are coordinating weekly testing (and it’s not rapid) using community resources. Some districts, like Chelsea, are utilizing the state’s “Stop the Spread” initiative, which offers free testing to any resident in 18 communities with high numbers of COVID-19.

SARAH BETANCOURT

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Gov. Charlie Baker nominates Associate Justice Kimberly Budd to become chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, which would make her the court’s first black, female chief.

A super PAC affiliated with Baker pumps another $373,000 into state GOP races, bringing the two month total to more than $900,000.

One in 10 Massachusetts nursing homes had only a week’s supply of personal protection equipment as recently as August, a new report says.

Opinion: The contingent English faculty at UMass Dartmouth calls for the university system to tap its stabilization fund rather than cutting jobs and hours.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

BEACON HILL

Gov. Charlie Baker gives out $5.9 million in food security grants. (MassLive)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Fields Corner in Dorchester is going through some big changes, with a Target opening and a new supermarket coming soon. (Dorchester Reporter)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Boston officials urge more testing of residents, a message that health experts say applies to the whole state. (Boston Globe

Connecticut and New Jersey will now require Massachusetts travelers to quarantine or show a negative COVID-19 test. (State House News)

Six months after closing the maternity unit at Falmouth Hospital, Cape Cod Healthcare plans to cut the availability of midwives at Cape Cod Hospital’s birthing unit. (Cape Cod Times)

A nursing home aide facing criminal charges and a civil lawsuit for sexually touching a 92-year-old resident is back working for the home after an internal investigation cleared him. (Berkshire Eagle)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Anonymous, who wrote the 2018 New York Times op-ed about resistance to Trump inside the administration, reveals who he is and he isn’t quite as senior as he and the Times suggested. (Politico)

Former governor Bill Weld says the rule of law is under assault by President Trump and Attorney General William Barr. (Boston Globe

A new lawsuit says census takers around the country were pressured to falsify data to finish the census more quickly. (Associated Press)

ELECTIONS

Women have made big gains in elected office since the 2016 election. (Boston Globe

The Globe hits the campaign trail with Kevin O’Connor who is waging a longshot bid for US Senate against Democratic incumbent Ed Markey. (Boston Globe) Gov. Charlie Baker will take part in a private online fundraiser for O’Connor today. (Boston Herald

The Boston Herald endorses a yes vote on Question 1, the “right to repair” question on the statewide ballot. 

State Rep. Tram Nguyen set off a social media controversy when she posted that someone intentionally drove toward a crowd in Boxford holding signs in support of Democratic candidates. The police now say it was an accident involving an elderly woman who was excited to see the rally. (Eagle-Tribune)

WBUR breaks down all the contested races in the Legislature. Democrat Jake Oliveira and Republican James “Chip” Harrington, both of Ludlow, are vying to replace retiring Rep. Thomas Petrolati in the 7th Hampden House district. Springfield Rep. Bud Williams is facing Republican challenger Prince Golphin. (MassLive) Three women — Democrat Meghan Kilcoyne, Republican Susan Smiley and Green-Rainbow candidate Charlene DiCalogero — are vying to replace Rep. Hank Naughton in the 12th Worcester District. (Telegram & Gazette)

DigBoston’s election feature lays out the recent history of victories and losses for the state’s GOP, and what the party can look forward to on Election Day.

More than 1.9 million people already voted in Massachusetts. (MassLive)

The federal agency that processes US citizenship applications incorrectly told hundreds of new US citizens in Massachusetts that they can’t vote in this year’s general election. (GBH)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

New data show people are once again stockpiling hand sanitizer and toilet paper. (MassLive)

EDUCATION

Parents of high-needs students in Boston are urging the district to resume in-person instruction for their children after the schools pulled back on that following an increase in the city’s coronavirus positivity rate. (Boston Herald)

Facing a backlash, Northeastern University pulled back from its faculty teaching requirements for the spring semester, saying there will be more flexibility for professors to teach remotely. (Boston Globe

The Massachusetts Teachers Association rips education commissioner Jeff Riley for urging communities in the “red” zone to keep schools open unless there is evidence of coronavirus spread within schools. (Boston Herald

Some Central Massachusetts school districts decide they will not give snow days this year, since students are already learning remotely. (Telegram & Gazette)

At Assumption University in Worcester, 155 students are in quarantine or isolation after the college reports that eight new students tested positive for COVID-19 this week, on top of six existing cases. (MassLive)

State education officials found Brockton graduation rates and test scores slipped after a series of lay-offs decimated the school district’s administrative staff. (The Enterprise) 

ARTS/CULTURE

The 2021 Boston Marathon won’t be happening in April next year. (WBUR)

TRANSPORTATION

The National Transportation Safety Board releases more details about the New Hampshire crash that killed seven motorcyclists and called attention to major problems at the state RMV. Driver Volodymyr Zhukovsky told investigators that he used heroin and cocaine the morning of the crash but did not believe he was impaired. (Associated Press)

The “Heart to Hub” commuter rail between Boston and Worcester is resuming, with schedule changes. (MassLive)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Environmental activists urge Eversource to abandon its natural gas pipeline project in Western Massachusetts. (MassLive)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Norfolk County Sheriff Jerry McDermott is preparing a site at Dedham jail for incarcerated women. (Patriot Ledger)

The Fall River School Department wants an independent organization to conduct a probe into the death and hospitalization of two teen autistic brothers found starved and living in squalor. The father has been arraigned on charges of abuse. (Herald News)

MEDIA

After 150 years, the Salt Lake Tribune will move from printing a daily newspaper to printing a weekly newspaper delivered by mail. (Associated Press)

Two Boston Herald sports writers took to Twitter to make clear the paper’s endorsement of President Trump only reflects the views of its editorial page. (Boston.com)