Mass. relaxes contact tracing in schools that offer rapid tests to students and staff

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“School nurses and others have done an amazing job around the clock to make this [test and stay] program is working as effectively as it has here in Massachusetts,” Baker said. “And it’s been hugely successful in avoiding lost days at home. But the current state of the pandemic requires that we adapt our efforts to cope with the times.

Schools can choose to participate in the new rapid testing program or they can stay with the test and stay, the governor said, adding that it will free up schools to focus on people with symptoms.

“This new home testing program is a real game-changer,” Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said. “Providing this option for rapid home testing will allow school nurses to spend more time identifying symptomatic individuals and focus their efforts on other aspects of managing COVID-19 in our schools.”

From this week, schools can sign up to receive rapid home antigen tests for weekly use, with tests for staff arriving the week of January 24 and those for families ready during the week of January 31.

Home tests will be shipped directly to school districts, packaged in kits containing two tests each, officials said. Participating students and staff will receive a kit every two weeks, and families will need to give consent to receive the tests.

If someone tests positive at home, officials said, families should let their school know. The statement said schools will report positive cases to the state as part of the weekly COVID-19 reporting system already in place.

The Baker administration’s announcement comes as some medical and educational experts increasingly express that schools should move away from resource-intensive efforts to contain a highly infectious virus that is mild in the vast majority of children who get it. contract.

But other scientists, teachers’ unions and some families of students have argued that the state should redouble its efforts amid a push to protect those at high risk, including in low-income communities. income where immunization rates are lagging. They also point out that no one knows the long-term impacts of COVID infections.

Contact tracing efforts have overwhelmed schools in recent weeks as COVID cases among students and staff have soared amid the Omicron surge. School nurses, who were already overstretched, often took on the duty of tracking students who were close contacts of COVID-positive students while infectious.

Newton Public Schools announced earlier this month that it would no longer be able to offer contact tracing in middle and high schools, where students mingle more than in elementary schools, and dozens of infectious pupils could interact with more than 1,000 others.

The test and stay program – which allows students and staff exposed to COVID at school to attend classes with daily negative rapid tests – has been widely praised. However, the state’s exclusion of vaccinated students from the program has led parents to question its usefulness, given that those vaccinated can still be infected and the state’s child vaccination rate has increased. .

State education officials said data collected through the test-and-stay program showed that more than 90% of asymptomatic close contacts tested negative, suggesting school transmission was very rare.

Helen Jenkins, associate professor of infectious diseases at Boston University and mother of schoolchildren at Cambridge, said she supported the change. While the test and stay were “essential” to help students stay in school instead of unnecessarily quarantining at home, she said, “the data is very compelling” and is not more needed.

“We have to consider the substantial burden this places on schools in terms of the time and resources needed to conduct contact tracing and perform these tests,” Jenkins said. “The benefits don’t seem to outweigh those burdens at this point.”

Jenkins said it was crucial that schools provide easily understandable guidance to families, preferably in their native language, on how to carry out home testing. She also said the state should make “even more efforts” to ensure that all communities have easy access to vaccines and good quality immunization information.

But some other experts weren’t so happy with the weekly tests.

Other countries are rolling out rapid tests in schools daily. Once a week is insufficient because Omicron can cause a person to have peak infectious days in just one to four days after exposure to the virus, said Dr. Julia Koehler, an infectious disease clinician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical. School.

“A weekly testing schedule is totally inadequate to control viral spread in schools,” Koehler said. “By the time the infection was detected four or five days later [after exposure], the virus has already been transmitted to other children.

Koehler added that the state’s mantra that schools are the safest place for children is “just plain wrong,” given the experience of many families she knows whose school children have passed on the virus to babies or older parents.

“Schools might be safe, but we haven’t invested the resources everywhere, not just where families can afford to keep their children safe,” Koehler said.

While rapid antigen tests are less sensitive at detecting infections in people without symptoms, the plan “seems like a reasonable approach”, given the evidence that the Omicron surge is receding, said Dr David Hamer, professor of global health at Boston University School. public health and medical school.

“As we move towards lower transmission, I think we should prioritize testing symptomatic students, teachers and staff,” Hamer said, adding that classroom transmission appeared to be minimal.

School leaders hailed the plan as a relief for nurses who have been overwhelmed by the search for increasing positive cases, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. Moving testing from schools to homes will also relieve school staff, he said.

“It’s a great solution to a big problem,” Scott said. “We are overwhelming people beyond the point of exhaustion.”

The largest union of educators in the state was satisfied. Massachusetts Teachers Association president Merrie Najimy hailed the plan as “an important move” that will add testing for students and staff, which teachers want. She said the state should boost participation by automatically enrolling everyone in the testing program with the choice to opt out, rather than forcing people to enroll. And she said educators still want contact tracing, but the state should provide staff, even nursing students, to help school nurses.

“Contact tracing is a necessary tool,” Najimy said. “We know we’re safer when we can test and trace where there have been infections.”

Boston Public Schools proposed a similar change last week during a conversation with state officials, a spokesperson said. He said the district will notify staff and families this week of its plans.

A parent group, BPS Families for COVID Safety, said the new program was flawed because it pressured districts to drop some mitigations to add new ones, overburdened parents who couldn’t understand -be not how to carry out tests and did not include high-quality masks or more school vaccination clinics. Boston has had lower participation rates in school screening programs than many suburban districts, the group added.

“The new DESE policy has serious problems and does not provide the layered approach we need to make schools safe,” the group said.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts hospital capacity continues to swell amid the Omicron-fueled surge.

In order to help medical operators dealing with absent workers, the Baker administration announced several emergency actions on Friday evening. The health system is facing a severe shortage of staff, fueled by numerous resignations due to burnout during the pandemic, and resulting in the loss of approximately 700 medical/surgical and intensive care hospital beds since the start. of 2021, the administration said.

Among the new changes, physician assistants will be allowed to practice independently without the supervision of a physician, which will create less paperwork and free up supervisors to care for more patients. Additionally, it allows dialysis centers to relax staffing requirements while maintaining sufficient direct care staff.

While officials have repeatedly urged the public to get vaccinated, they have also stressed the need to mask up in indoor public places.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky tweeted over the weekend that masks should cover your nose and mouth.

“Any mask is better than no mask,” Walensky tweeted.

Walensky also tweeted that some masks are better than others.

Material from previous Globe stories has been used in this report. Tiana Woodard of Globe staff contributed.


Travis Andersen can be contacted at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.

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