Lack Of Supplies, Personnel Make Testing Option Tough
While Chautauqua County officials say they would like to utilize the “Test To Stay” policy in schools, the testing materials and personnel are simply not available.
Christine Schuyler, county public health director, said the New York State Health Department is not directly recommending the “Test To Stay” initiative for school districts, but will allow counties who wish to do so offer it. The initiative would allow students or staff to return to school or work after a seven-day quarantine due to a COVID-19 close contact, as opposed to the standard 10-day quarantine. However, the individual would have to test negative at that time and have shown no symptoms during the quarantine period.
“A big part of their direction was that it has to be fair and equitable across all school districts,” Schuyler said. “The testing supplies just do not exist at this time. To be able to really do the ‘Test to Stay,’ it would be thousands of tests per week required to be able to do that in every school district and to have it there for every day.”
She said before the state Department of Health guidance, she had been in conversation with the Saratoga County health commissioner who had been working with the CDC on “Test to Stay” pilot programs. He had started one in Saratoga, and it was found that it saved hundreds of days of school for Saratoga County districts.
“I do think it’s valuable, and it’s something that I would really like to be able to do,” Schuyler said. “We are talking about trying to enlist the support of a couple of school districts to do a pilot program with it and see how that works out.”
She said the county will also be looking into procuring more supplies to more fully implement the program.
“The state has said us at the county level and the school level will get more supplies to implement ‘Test to Stay,’ but so far we haven’t seen that,” she said. “I know just in the Western New York regions, as recently as last evening, my colleagues and I were going back and forth asking who had any Binax antigen testing supplies in their cupboard because all our cupboards are bare.”
She said the initiative would also include enough staffing to fully run the program.
“It would require a lot of cooperation on the part of the schools and the school health staff because that’s something that we right now do not have the capacity to do for every school in the county,” Schuyler said. “You have to add in the BOCES facilities and the private schools, so you’re talking over 30 school buildings where children are, so that’s a lot to get to. We are continuing to support the pool testing initiative which that means the weekly testing requirements for any school staff who are not vaccinated.”
Schuyler said the recent changes to quarantine policy also apply to the school systems.
On Nov. 24, the county Health Department announced that as of Monday, Nov. 29, county residents who are a close contact of a COVID-positive person and they are not vaccinated can be released after seven full days if a COVID test is administered and tested on Day Five after exposure is negative and no symptoms are reported.
“We are able to shorten the quarantine time right now, as of Monday, and we can shorten the quarantine time for children and schools staff who are in quarantine but remain asymptomatic, and we can utilize the testings supplies that we received from the state through our COVID grant to actually test those students and staff who are asymptomatic in quarantine and get them back to school on Day Eight instead of Day 11.”
At this time, Schulyer said the real issue with testing the county is facing is a lack of rapid tests. She said several area pharmacies offer non-rapid tests, and other convenience stores and pharmacies offer over-the-counter at-home COVID antigen tests.
“As far as being able to obtain a rapid test, especially PCR tests, we just don’t have that availability in our county outside the school setting right now,” she said.
Schuyler and County Executive PJ Wendel have been advocating for assistance in this area at the state level. However, Schulyer said the county doesn’t just need testing materials or new staff that they need to train. Rather, the county needs a state-run testing site.
Wendel said he is concerned because, as a former teacher, he has experienced how often children are out sick during the school year. He said if a student is out on COVID quarantine five times, that’s 50 days that the student is out of school.
“Now, we’re not availing them the opportunity to do online work, and that’s detrimental to kids,” he said. “The ‘Test to Stay’ is important for the educational system and getting kids back to school. This test to stay would be valuable, but as Christine said, without the testing supplies what do you do? It’s a good thought. Hey, let’s all fly to the moon next week – but we don’t have any aircraft so how are we going to do that? We’re pushing this – I’ve been very open and very honest with the state and people say I’m blaming – I’m not blaming – I’m asking the state to give us assistance. We have not had any help – Christine’s group has done the yeoman’s work of everything from testing to vaccinations, quarantining and isolations. Please come give us a break.”