William H. Rowe School nurse Jill Webber in her office in Yarmouth on Friday. The Yarmouth schools have received 160 rapid tests. Webber said the rapid tests help the schools immensely, and wishes she had more. “The efficiency and speed at which we can do the testing is going to reduce transmission in schools and the community,” she said. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Nearly 50 Maine schools and school districts are now using rapid-result coronavirus tests on symptomatic students and staff to quickly identify positive cases and to improve the contact tracing and quarantine process.

Over 4,000 Abbott rapid antigen tests have been distributed to schools so far through a state program that funnels tests from the federal government to essential employees at schools as well as law enforcement and health care workers. The first Maine schools were approved to get the tests in early November and started using them before the Thanksgiving break, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The real benefit of making these tests available within the schools is that we will no longer have the five-to-eight-day lag time between an individual feeling sick and our receiving word of a positive test,” said Yarmouth Superintendent Andrew Dolloff, whose district started using the tests two weeks ago. “We will immediately move the infected individual and any close contacts into quarantine, thereby reducing the likelihood they are infecting others by walking around for a week or more during the time when they should be in quarantine.”

Widespread testing at colleges and universities was key to keeping many schools open this fall, but at the K-12 level efforts to test students and staff have been more sparse. Some school districts have entered into partnerships with local health care providers to be able to offer testing, but the Maine Department of Education is not tracking how prevalent such efforts are.

At the same time, Yarmouth and other school districts around Maine have faced staffing challenges in trying to keep schools open during the pandemic due to shortages of substitute teachers and the need to quarantine large numbers of students and staff who might get exposed to an infected individual at school. As the virus continues to surge, some superintendents and school staff said it remains to be seen whether expanded access to testing will help cut down on the numbers of people in quarantine, but it will at least help schools identify exposures and who needs to quarantine more quickly.

William H. Rowe School nurse Jill Webber holds a used rapid test Friday that came out negative. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“If I can test you in the building and find out on day one you’re symptomatic at 2 o’clock today and I know you’re positive, I get those people in your classroom into quarantine and I get it arranged so they have testing at day 5 or 6, we’ve eliminated all those people from spreading the illness if they’re infected,” said Jill Webber, a school nurse at William H. Rowe School in Yarmouth. “That’s what this does.”

Yarmouth wasn’t doing any testing of students or staff prior to obtaining the tests from the state two weeks ago. If a student came to the nurse’s office with symptoms, Webber said she would put the student in isolation, send him or her home and recommend that the child go to a primary care doctor for a test. Sometimes it would take as long as a week for the school to find out the results, she said.

In the last week and a half, Webber has twice suited up in full personal protective equipment to administer tests to students who showed at least one COVID symptom such as a sore throat, body aches or a cough. Both results were negative, which came as a huge relief to the school.

“There are so many symptoms that are consistent with COVID that aren’t COVID,” Webber said. “There are so many things that can cause a fever or sore throat. We look at a kid and we’re like, ‘What do you have? Could it be COVID?’ Being able to rule that out is a way to protect people and a way to calm people, and both of those are important.”

In Cape Elizabeth, Superintendent Donna Wolfrom said the district received its first tests about two weeks ago and also plans to use them for students and staff who develop symptoms while at school. According to state guidance, the negative rapid test is “strongly suggestive” that a person does not have COVID-19, although a follow-up PCR test should be considered for people who continue to show symptoms or have been in a high-risk environment. The PCR test is considered to be extremely accurate and typically produces results in 24 to 48 hours.

Wolfrom said Wednesday only one rapid test has been administered so far in Cape Elizabeth, and the result was negative.

“We take direction from CDC on quarantines, but the negative test did calm our fears that others had been exposed,” she said in an email.

There is no cost to schools or students and staff to access the rapid tests, which can provide results within 15 minutes for symptomatic individuals. However, Robert Long, a spokesman for the Maine CDC, said some districts may be opting to not use them because of limited nursing resources, which would hinder their ability to administer the tests, or because they have opted to have students and staff access testing at Walgreens sites, where the state has directed most of the 400,000 Abbott tests it began receiving this fall.

Portland Public Schools is currently providing free rapid testing for symptomatic students and staff through a partnership with Greater Portland Health, but communications coordinator Tess Nacelewicz said Thursday they have also applied for the Abbott tests available through the state in order to add to capacity.

The Maine CDC is continuing to receive applications from schools. The approval process can take several weeks as districts must apply for and receive federal waivers to allow them to administer the tests. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services also has developed a letter and parental consent form for districts to use to communicate with families about the program before getting started.

In Biddeford and Dayton, Superintendent Jeremy Ray said the districts have been approved for the tests and plan to roll them out after the winter break. Throughout the fall, Ray said schools have worked with Southern Maine Health Care to help staff who show symptoms get access to testing at walk-in clinics with results typically available within 24 hours.

For students, schools have pointed families to walk-in clinics or other testing resources but largely have not gotten involved in any effort to administer tests. Access to the rapid tests ideally will be used for students and staff who show symptoms during the school day as the schools do not want to invite symptomatic people into their buildings to get tested, Ray said.

“If they do get symptoms during the day, the advantage would be we would know quicker ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and then we would be able to be more efficient and more effective with tracing and quarantines following CDC guidelines,” Ray said. “When you do contact tracing and it’s been a couple days people say, ‘I think I was here and here.’ This would be more immediate for us.”


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