The San Diego Unified School District has started voluntary COVID-19 testing for students and staff at several elementary schools, under a partnership with UC San Diego Health, it was announced Tuesday.
The testing initiative is designed to help to keep students and staff safe while expanding in-person learning amid the pandemic. The reopening strategy was developed in collaboration with UCSD infectious disease experts, according to SDUSD Superintendent Cindy Marten.
"The end of the COVID-19 crisis is now in sight with the development and delivery of a safe and effective vaccine, and that has given us all cause to hope," Marten said. "In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to continue operating safely despite the worsening infection rates in our community. That is why testing is essential."
San Diego Unified's testing plan was announced in November, and the Board of Education voted then to authorize an initial $5 million investment in the testing plan, which includes a joint laboratory services testing agreement with UCSD Medical Center. The board will consider ratifying that agreement Tuesday.
Eventually, the testing program could be expanded to include all 100,000 students within the district and its more than 10,000 staff members.
"Scientific models from our colleagues at UC San Diego show we can prevent 90% of all transmissions on campus with effective testing every two weeks," Marten said. "That level of protection will not only help us reopen schools; it will help us keep them open, and avoid the back-and-forth, open-and-shut problems that have plagued other school systems."
Free COVID-19 tests will be available to students and staff at 10 district elementary schools this week, with additional testing to be offered from Jan. 4-15. The goal is to test every student and staff member every two weeks, starting with those on campus for the first phase of school reopening.
"The implementation of COVID-19 testing is an important tool for district campuses in identifying and limiting the spread of the coronavirus," district physician Dr. Howard Taras said. "Although voluntary, I strongly urge student and staff participation in the testing program for their health and the health of others."
The campuses, which the district did not publicly disclose, were selected based on generally higher local case rates of community infections, combined with student and staff participation rates in appointment-based learning.
The tests will be administered in campus auditoriums and multi-purpose rooms by medical professionals from UCSD Health in conjunction with staff members from the district's health office. The procedure, which takes about 15 seconds, involves swabbing both nostrils. The swab itself is inserted roughly the same distance as a common nasal spray applicator.
"The science is clear when it comes to the importance of COVID-19 testing, even if a person has no symptoms," said Patty Maysent, CEO of UC San Diego Health. "It is a critical component in slowing and containing the spread of COVID-19, along with measures like masking, social distancing and proper hand hygiene. Swabbing a mouth or a nose is quick and easy. And it can ultimately help save lives."
Test results will be available about 24 hours following the test. Individuals who test positive will receive a phone call from a UCSD health professional and follow-up from district nursing staff. Results will be be accessed through UC San Diego My Chart.
Students and staff members who test negative may get retested every two weeks. Those who test positive for COVID-19 will not be re-tested for 90 days.
"Even after the vaccine rolls out this winter, I anticipate that testing will remain an important tool for schools," Taras said. "I do not anticipate that school-age children will be offered the vaccine for many months after the vaccine is available to adults.
"There is very little research on the effectiveness of this vaccine on children under 12. And while we are hopeful that it will be just as effective in younger age groups as it is in adults, vigilance about reducing the numbers of potentially positive and infectious children on our campuses via testing will remain an important precaution for many months after staff members are vaccinated," he said.