Weekly COVID testing could limit spread in Colorado schools, state officials say

A large banner hangs from a railing at the top of the stairs in a high school. It reads, “Stay positive, test negative.”

As cases of COVID in young children rise steeply, Colorado public health officials say it’s important to test all students and staff weekly to help reduce disease transmission. Colorado has allocated $173 million of federal relief money to provide schools with free rapid tests and help in setting up testing programs.

“Our goal with this program is to decrease the spread of COVID-19 within our schools by trying to identify symptomatic and asymptomatic spread as quickly as possible,” said Sarah Hamma, who heads up COVID community testing and vendor partnerships for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “We are aiming to ensure students can continue in-person learning as safely as possible and minimize the number of disruptions from disease transmission.” 

So far, 447 schools representing 22 school districts, some private schools, and the state Charter School Institute, which oversees state-authorized charter schools, have signed up for the testing program. That represents about 20% of Colorado’s 2,300 public and private K-12 schools.

Participating districts include the Fort Collins-based Poudre district, Greeley-Evans, Adams 14, and Mapleton, as well as many small rural districts such as Mancos, Ignacio, and Lamar.

Eighty-one schools have completed the enrollment process, and some could start testing after Labor Day. State officials said the exact timing is dependent on school districts working out logistics with the vendors that support the programs. 

The program is designed to identify people with symptomatic and asymptomatic cases of COVID so they can isolate before the disease spreads in classrooms and turns into outbreaks that can disrupt in-person learning.

“The weekly cadence allows schools to have a more proactive monitoring on the amount of disease spread happening within the schools,” Hamma said.

The program is free to schools and individuals and strictly voluntary. Anyone under 18 would need parental approval to get tested. Gov. Jared Polis has said he wants to give students a financial incentive to participate in frequent testing, but the state is waiting for federal approval of that idea.

Hamma said some school districts may be running separate testing programs with community partners, and state officials don’t know why more school districts are not participating in the state program. 

Cases among children ages 6 to 11, who are too young to be vaccinated, started increasing in July, alongside cases among other age groups. Since mid-August, when students returned to school, cases in this age group have risen sharply, with case rates higher than at any time in the pandemic. Seventeen children are hospitalized with COVID, including 10 who are 10 or younger, out of almost 800 total hospitalizations statewide.

“Our children are where we are seeing the highest rates of disease transmission in the state,” state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said at a press conference Tuesday. “This is the first time in the pandemic that we’re really seeing this high rate in our young children.”

Herlihy said travel, sports, camps, and gatherings may all play a role. However, school transmission is contributing to the increase, she said. 

Most Colorado school districts started the school year with masks recommended but not required. In the past two weeks, a number of school districts and county boards of health have expanded mask mandates in schools, though the decisions have met with resistance from some parents. Colorado school districts are also operating under relaxed quarantine rules compared with last year and allowing more students to stay in class after exposure to someone who tested positive.

Herlihy said masks are important and urged parents of unvaccinated children to have them wear masks indoors outside of school settings as well as in school. However, masks are just one aspect of prevention, Herlihy said. 

“This isn’t just about masks in schools,” she said. “Our school guidance talks to a layered approach. All the strategies we’ve been using — masks, handwashing, distancing, ventilation, testing — continue to be really important. And the most important intervention we have is the vaccines.” 

Schools can either sign up with an outside vendor who will run the testing program, including managing the logistics of obtaining consent forms and reporting cases, or get supplies and advice from the state on running their own testing program. 

The program plans to use BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests. Nationally, there is a shortage of these tests after the manufacturer, Abbott Laboratories, scaled back production and even destroyed tests due to low demand in the spring.

Hamma said the state currently has enough tests for interested school districts and is monitoring supplies.

“We are watching it closely, but we do not feel there is an imminent shortage,” she said.

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