Tennessee to prioritize schools with rapid coronavirus tests coming from feds

Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday that Tennessee will soon receive thousands of rapid test kits from the federal government to test for the coronavirus in schools.

The state is expected to get 133,000 of the new tests — which deliver results in minutes, not days —  in early October, and 2 million by the end of the year. While schools will get priority, Lee said some of the kits also will go toward protecting elderly people in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

The tests should vastly expand testing across Tennessee. They will arrive just in time for a likely surge in cases and an overlap with the flu season during the colder months ahead.

During his weekly press update on COVID, Lee called the development “good news” and another reason to get students back into school buildings.

“We all know, and we’re knowing with increasing clarity, that in-person learning is very important, particularly as we evaluate learning loss,” said Lee, who on Monday visited with students in both virtual and brick-and-mortar classrooms in East Tennessee.

President Donald Trump on Monday announced the distribution of millions of the new rapid tests made by Abbott Laboratories. The federal government purchased the first 150 million, and Trump urged governors to use them toward reopening K-12 schools. 

Dr. Lisa Piercey, Tennessee’s health commissioner, said the tests should be a “true game-changer” because they work faster, cost less, and are easier to use.

“This is a rapid test that can turn around results in 13 to 15 minutes,” she said.

Administered and evaluated on site, the tests can be tolerated better because they require swabbing the front of the nostril instead of deep into the nostril. The swab is then placed on a card that’s the size of a credit card to look for a chemical reaction.

“They don’t require any equipment. They don’t require any machinery. They can be done just with trained personnel,” Piercey said.

While positive tests may need to be confirmed with higher-grade lab tests, Piercey said they are helpful in identifying people with symptoms of the potentially lethal respiratory virus.

“The FDA says that for symptomatic people, the sensitivity is 97%. That means if you have symptoms and you get this test, you’re 97% likely to have a true positive. That’s higher than anything else that’s on the market right now,” Piercey said.

Even as Tennessee remains under a state of emergency, Lee has urged districts to reopen school buildings as soon as possible.

Currently, only 10 of 147 school districts are operating with all in-person instruction, while 127 are on a hybrid schedule based on parent choice for in-person or remote learning. Three districts are remote only, including the state’s two largest districts in Memphis and Nashville.

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