The Sandwich Public Schools is one of 134 districts in the state selected to take part in a pilot program that would allow school nurses to administer a rapid COVID-19 test to staff and students who present with symptoms during the school day.
But not everyone in the Sandwich school district is enthusiastic about the news.
For one, the school’s physician, Dr. Richard Bloom, is resistant to the idea of including children in the pilot program.
Also, when Superintendent Pamela A. Gould announced the news during this week’s school committee meeting, committee vice chairwoman Kerri L. Ames said that she did not like the idea of what amounted to a clinical trial being conducted in the schools.
“I do not like the idea of setting up our staff and students as guinea pigs,” she said. “That’s a scary slope for me as someone who has worked in clinical research.”
By using the Abbott BinaxNow rapid test, school nurses would have a COVID-19 result within 15 minutes with up to 97 percent accuracy when testing adults, according to the state. This result would be considered probable and a PCR test would still be needed for confirmation.
State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley announced the pilot program during a news conference held at the Gardner Auditorium at the State House on Wednesday, November 18. Schools involved in the program will be able to begin testing as soon as early December.
Dr. Gould told the school committee Wednesday that Sandwich has been selected as one of the districts in the state to take part in the first phase of the Abbott BinaxNOW program. Through the program, the district would be given a number of rapid-result antigen tests at no cost, which would allow school nurses to administer a nasal swab to someone in a school building who is not feeling well.
The tests have not been approved at this time for asymptomatic testing by the Federal Drug Administration and would only be used on people presenting with symptoms of the virus.
In order to fully qualify to take part in the program the district would have to meet a number of criteria, including having a CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments) certification, have a signed physician’s order, and have its staff trained to administer the test.
The district does not have the CLIA certification, but Dr. Gould said the town does, which satisfies that requirement.
Dr. Gould noted that school physician Dr. Bloom is hesitant to sign the order because he is wary of using the tests on students. If he does not sign the physician’s order, the district will be disqualified from the program.
Dr. Bloom would prefer to only be administering the test to adults, Dr. Gould said.
Reached by telephone this week, Dr. Bloom said that his hesitation is with the efficacy of the antigen test, saying that the PCR test is the “gold standard.”
Governor Charles D. Baker Jr. has touted the Abbott BinaxNOW test as being easy to use and interpret.
In order to perform the test, a short nasal swab is used to collect a sample from the patient’s nose. The swab is then inserted into a test card that opens like a book and has been prepared with a solution that extracts the test sample from the swab.
The result appears on the outside of the card within 15 minutes in a manner much like a pregnancy test—two lines for positive, one line if it is negative.
While the test provides a quick way to determine if someone has COVID-19 or if he or she perhaps has a cold or influenza, it is not intended to be wholly diagnostic. If someone shows a positive result at school, that person will be required to get a nasal PCR test to confirm the results before being able to return to school.
Dr. Gould said that in order to test a child, parental consent will be required. Dr. Gould said the district would request parental content well in advance, if and when the district is enrolled in the program, so the district will not be trying to hurriedly track down a parent when a child shows up for class sick.
Ms. Ames said that in addition to her concerns about using students and staff in the pilot program, she has some reservations about the reported efficacy of the tests.
Secretary of Health MaryLou Sudders said during the news conference that the test detected COVID-19 in children and young adults 79 percent of the time and in adults 97 percent of the time. During the state’s testing of the product, five tests returned false positives, although she did not indicate how many tests were administered in total.
Dr. Gould said that participation in the program is completely voluntary. Prior to any final decisions being made about implementing the testing, she said that she will be meeting again in the coming week with Dr. Bloom, Sandwich Fire Chief John J. Burke, Health Agent David Mason, and Town Nurse Joanne Geake.
Board member Kevin Sareault said that he would like to hear more from Dr. Bloom and asked if he might be able to come to a future meeting to talk with the board about the testing.
Fellow member Burton Fisher said he does not see a downside to being involved in the program, noting that staff will be able to decide for themselves if they want the testing and parents will decide for their children.
If the district goes through with the program, it is slated to start in December.
Several other districts on Cape Cod have also been selected for the testing initiative, including Bourne, Falmouth, Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School, Barnstable and the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in Harwich.