PA unveils school testing program

A nurse administers a coronavirus disease test at a drive-thru testing event in Philadelphia.
Reuters file

Pennsylvania schools can participate in a weekly “pooled” testing program at no cost to detect the spread of the coronavirus when in-person classes resume in the coming weeks, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration said Monday.

The state’s top health official also ordered COVID-19 vaccine providers to “make every effort” to host a clinic for a school or university if requested.

Neither initiative applies to Philadelphia, which has its own federal pandemic funding stream and where local leaders have generally established separate regulations.

Suburban districts will be able to opt in to the testing system. Children whose families consent will be swabbed, and all samples from a particular class or grouping will be combined and tested once.

“It’s a lot easier and more efficient than people are used to,” said Karen Hogan, state general manager for Ginkgo Bioworks, which is administering the program. “There’s none of this deep, tickling brain nasal swab. Instead, it’s a nice shallow swab.”

Results should come in within 24 to 48 hours. Ginkgo will notify a school if a cohort tests positive, triggering a process through which kids are tested again to determine exactly who is infected, Hogan said.

State officials pitched the system as a simple and quick way to test large groups of students at once.

“Early detection like this is exactly what we need to keep students in classrooms and COVID out,” said Acting Pennsylvania Health Secretary Alison Beam.

The School District of Philadelphia is planning to test all adult staff once a week, regardless of vaccination status. Students, except those participating in high-contact sports and activities, will only be swabbed if they have symptoms.

City public school students, in accordance with federal guidelines, will be required to wear masks at all times, a decision Wolf’s administration is leaving to individual districts.

Philadelphia public school students will be required to wear masks at all times.REUTERS/Hannah Beier

“At this stage, there is no discussion taking place as to whether or not there will be a statewide masking mandate,” Beam told reporters Monday.

Any school or university that asks a vaccine provider to set up an inoculation event should be accommodated if at all possible, according to a state directive that went out this week. If a hospital or other organization is unable to host a clinic, they must direct school administrators to the Pennsylvania Department of Health for help.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who appeared virtually at a state news conference, praised the move. Both initiatives, including the state’s $86 million agreement with Ginkgo, are utilizing federal pandemic funding.

“The president put a charge out there several weeks ago to all governors — do what you can to try to get pop-up vaccine clinics set up at your schools,” he said. “I’m hoping other states are watching what you’re doing.”

Vaccination drives targeting teenagers are being held through a partnership between the city, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Black Doctors COVID Consortium. The next clinic is scheduled Tuesday from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Philadelphia Zoo.

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