CMS considers regular COVID testing for students and staff

CMS considers regular COVID testing for students and staff

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

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The push to reopen schools in North Carolina has been met with a renewed focus on COVID safety and preventative measures.

Why it matters: Surveillance testing gives schools the ability to catch positive cases early, which could help keep outbreaks contained to small groups of students, as opposed to entire grades or schools.

  • Tools like these are increasingly important as more students return to the classroom, and as there still isn’t a COVID vaccine approved for kids under 16.

What’s happening: A¬†Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools representative tells me the district is in the early phases of researching surveillance programs.

“I think it’s a really important tool as part of an overall approach,” Matt McKnight, chief commercial officer of Ginkgo Bioworks tells me of surveillance testing. “Masking, distancing to the extent you can, ventilation, and regular weekly testing so that you have this data generation of what is going on.”

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Ginkgo testing kit. Courtesy of Copper Hound Pictures

Ginkgo Bioworks, a biotech company, is supplying COVID testing kits for schools and is in talks with multiple North Carolina school districts, according to McKnight. The program has already been implemented in schools districts in Maryland and Massachusetts.

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How it works: Ginkgo’s weekly testing program treats classrooms as individual tests.

  • Each classroom teacher and their students swabs the lower part of their own nose, and puts that swab in the same vial that’s sent to a local lab for PCR testing.
  • Results will show when there is a positive case in the classroom. But for privacy reasons, it won’t indicate which student(s) or teacher(s) are positive.
  • From there, it’s up to the district to determine how to conduct individual tests. McKnight says this method is easier logistically and less expensive.

“As opposed to just saying, ‘Oh go back in the classroom, we actually don’t know if there’s COVID or not because we’re not doing anything to learn,’ this is data generation. Once per week you know if your classroom has a kid that’s positive,” McKnight says.

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A Collins Middle School student in Salem, MA swabbing their nose. Courtesy of Copper Hound Pictures

Driving the news: North Carolina’s school reopening bill is a bipartisan effort that requires all state school districts to offer in-person learning for public school students by early April. Governor Cooper signed the bill into law on March 11.

  • CMS has already expanded the number of in-person days for all K-12 students. The district’s new plan also increases the number of students in classrooms together. [Go deeper]

The cost of surveillance testing through Ginkgo is determined by the number of classrooms, and breaks down to about $6 per student. For reference, CMS has over 140,000 students.

  • CMS is set to receive $347 million from the most recent stimulus package.
  • Recently the Biden administration also allocated $12 billion to expand COVID testing in schools.

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