Starting in early December, 134 school districts, charter schools and special education collaboratives will have access to rapid COVID-19 tests for students or staff members who show symptoms of the respiratory disease while school is in session.
The school testing initiative will launch as the number of tests available and able to be processed has ramped up significantly from the spring, and as more and more people choose to get tested regardless of their symptoms to have peace of mind. Testing technology has come a long way from the early days of the pandemic and people may be able to test themselves for the coronavirus quickly at home in the next few months, Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday.
The first phase of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's testing initiative will use Abbott's BinaxNOW, an antigen test that uses a nasal swab and test card to return a result in about 15 minutes, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said. Last month, the Trump administration said it was sending more than two million of the BinaxNOW tests to Massachusetts.
"As we have said many times, staff and students must stay home if they are not feeling well. However, some people may experience the onset of symptoms while at school. The Abbot BinaxNOW tests will allow schools and districts to rapidly respond to these types of situations," Riley said. "By testing students and teachers and getting results within minutes we will be able to identify infected individuals and their close contacts more quickly, and to help stop any spread."
A school must get consent from the student's parent or guardian before a school nurse or another medical technician performs the nasal swab. If the result comes back positive on the BinaxNOW test, it must be confirmed with a molecular test.
The 134 districts or schools that will participate in the first phase of the testing initiative were not identified Wednesday, but Riley said it was "a broad mix of schools" that volunteered to be part of the program. He said DESE is "in the process of finalizing that list." There are 403 school districts in Massachusetts so the majority are not part of the first wave of testing.
Riley said the testing program was designed to help districts continue with in-person learning as much as possible, a priority of the Baker administration. But he said that mission is made more difficult by the rising number of COVID-19 cases.
"I can't restate the governor's points enough that we really need people to redouble their efforts around preventing the spread of this virus. What we see in schools and what we've seen already in some places is we don't think transmission is happening in schools," Riley said. "But that doesn't mean that kids or teachers aren't bringing a positive case into schools. And when you do that you have close contacts, which means you have to put students or staff out. And we've seen in some cases where a certain number of staff have had to be put out on quarantine until they're clear and that's forced to school to shut down."
Baker said he's optimistic about the BinaxNOW test not only because it has been shown to be reliable in identifying COVID-19 cases, but because it costs $5 per test and is "really easy to use."
Massachusetts will use its BinaxNOW tests in schools and maybe in correctional facilities, Baker said, and other states plan to use theirs in other settings. Once the use of the test is widespread, Baker said, it will provide troves of data that will help get to the point at which people can go to the drug store, buy a pack of 10 tests and keep them in their medicine cabinet to test themselves at home.
"My hope would be to see it before the spring," Baker said Wednesday. He added, "The feds bought basically the entire production run between now and the end of the calendar year ... I think they bought 150 million. So coming behind that will be what I would call a production run that would be available more broadly to states and to the public."
There are 403 school districts in Massachusetts so the majority are not part of the first wave of testing.
On Tuesday, Baker said the state is constrained in some ways by the federal government's guidelines for testing but that his administration has "a bunch of things going on with respect to testing generally and asymptomatic testing in particular" and is looking for ways to do more.
"As we move into the rest of this year, you'll see us working to try to get some latitude from the feds to do some things that will help with respect to the lines we have now around our existing testing protocols," he said Tuesday.
Late Tuesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the emergency use of the Lucira COVID-19 All-In-One Test Kit for home use with nasal swab samples in individuals 14 and older "who are suspected of COVID-19 by their health care provider." Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said that test is likely cost-prohibitive for many people at about $50 per test, but that "the future is self-administered, inexpensive tests that people would have at home."
"There's a lot in production. They're not available yet," she said.
The governor also reminded people Wednesday that the 18 Stop the Spread sites that offer free testing are not the only places in Massachusetts to get tested for COVID-19 without paying out of pocket.
"Ninety-six percent of the population in Massachusetts has health insurance. CVS, Walgreens, all the pharmacies have open slots available right now that people could fill and get those tests done at the pharmacies and those would be covered by insurance, with no out-of-pocket expense," Baker said.
When a News Service reporter attempted to schedule a COVID-19 test at a CVS after Baker's comments, the pharmacy said the reporter would have to pay $139 out of pocket — despite having health insurance — to get tested because he did not have coronavirus symptoms and had not been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
On most recent weekdays, somewhere between about 70,000 and 105,000 coronavirus tests have been performed each day. On Saturdays and Sundays, the number of tests conducted typically drops to between 25,000 and 35,000, according to the Department of Public Health.
In some ways, the long lines at free testing sites mean people are listening to the messages coming from Baker and other elected leaders like Boston Mayor Martin Walsh. Baker's administration "urges" people living in high-risk communities to get tested regardless of whether they have symptoms and Walsh recently launched a "Get The Test Boston" pledge, in which local employers commit to making sure their employees know when and how to get tested.