State to begin surveillance testing for coronavirus in K-12 schools

By | November 11, 2020

coronavirus testing lab
Valarie Devlin and Alan Finn, microbiologists at the Vermont Department of Health Laboratory, test specimens for the COVID-19 virus early in the pandemic. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

As Vermont’s Covid-19 case counts continue to climb steadily, state officials announced Tuesday they are preparing to begin large-scale, regular surveillance testing in the state’s K-12 schools.

To establish a baseline, the state will offer testing to all teachers and staff starting next week, officials said. After the Thanksgiving break, testing will be conducted on a rotating schedule, with tests offered to one-quarter of Vermont schools each week, so that every teacher and staff member is offered testing once a month. Testing will be voluntary.

Officials emphasized they do not believe school employees are at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19 than other people. But they said teachers and staff represent a large group of individuals in an organized setting, evenly distributed throughout the state, and are the ideal population to provide a statewide picture of the virus’ spread in Vermont.

“To be clear, testing of school personnel is a public health surveillance strategy,” Health Commissioner Mark Levine said during the governor’s twice-weekly press conference.

The testing will continue indefinitely.

“It’s not meant to be a ‘let’s just see what the impact of Thanksgiving is.’ This is a strategy that will persevere until we’re all vaccinated and doing well and enjoying our lives like they used to be,” Levine said.

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The state estimates 25,000 people could be tested through the K-12 surveillance program. The tests will be offered to all public schools and a small number of private schools, according to Agency of Education spokesperson Ted Fisher.

“The independent schools were chosen based on a range of factors, including their geographic location and the size of their staff,” Fisher said.

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There are no current plans to expand the surveillance testing to students, but testing is expected to become more widely available to the general population. The state’s surveillance testing will be provided through a new contract with CIC Health of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and that will make it possible to expand testing opportunities every day of the week at locations across the state. The tests will be self-administered PCR tests.

Regular surveillance testing of both students and staff has been conducted at Vermont’s colleges and universities with great success, and appears to have helped keep individual cases from turning into clusters and wider outbreaks — except in the case of St. Michael’s College. 

The Colchester school initially detected eight cases — which were linked back to the Central Vermont hockey league outbreak — through surveillance testing in mid-October. Those cases eventually mushroomed to an outbreak of more than 70 cases, and the college has gone to remote teaching for the remainder of the semester.

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The Vermont chapter of the National Education Association has repeatedly called for more testing in the state’s schools. Don Tinney, the union’s president, said he welcomed the news.

“We’re pleased to see a testing program put in place, and hope it leads to the data we all need to control the virus,” he said.

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