'It's a game-changer': Ontario County schools get rapid, on-site COVID testing
Before COVID-19, it wasn’t a big deal to see a kid with a runny nose at school.
But today? A trip to the nurse's office – and then home for several days – is more likely.
"If they cough, if they sneeze, if they throw up, if they have a fever or generally if they just complain that they don't feel well,” said Linda Platt, describing the list she knows by heart.
Platt’s 15-year-old son, who is a special education student at a BOCES school in Fairport, was vomiting a couple of weeks ago.
So Platt took the 10th-grader to his pediatrician for a COVID-19 test. He had to quarantine at home until the results came back negative.
He missed nearly a week of school.
"I'm trying to work from home, and if I'm home, he demands a higher level of attention,” Platt said. “I can't imagine what I would do if I wasn't working from home. I'd have to take the day off and stay home with him."
A rapid antigen test can produce results in 15 to 30 minutes. It's considered highly accurate if the results are positive. But there is the potential for false-negatives.
That's why local health authorities often require a molecular test, sometimes called a PCR test, before a student with symptoms or a known exposure to someone with COVID-19, is cleared to return to school.
But a PCR test often isn't easy to access. Sometimes, it requires a visit to a doctor's office, and it can take days to get the results.
"The combination of the quarantines where kids were missing school, as well as kids being sent home for symptoms they typically wouldn't be sent home for, has caused a lot of frustration in our district,” said Tim Terranova, superintendent of schools in Victor.
Starting next week, Victor and all of the other school districts in Ontario County are launching a rapid on-site PCR testing program.
Ontario County’s public health director, Mary Beer, said results are delivered in about 15 minutes.
“It's a shallow nose test,” she added, “so it's not a deep nose test that everybody complained about last year."
Beer said she used part of a $2.9 million state grant to purchase 30 portable, rapid molecular “ID Now” machines from Abbott Pharmaceuticals to process the test samples. They will be placed in each school building throughout the county.
If a student has COVID-19 symptoms, they will be sent to their school's health office to be tested with their parent's permission.
"So hopefully going forward, if we have a child who has it, we'll be able to do minimal quarantining,” Beer explained. “And the children who might have been exposed that aren't going to get it, we'll be testing them every day instead of sending them home."
Terranova calls the technology a game-changer.
The Victor Central School District is just recovering from a COVID-19 outbreak that began in September and caused more than 200 students to be quarantined at its peak.
"But it could happen again at any moment,” said Terranova. “If it does happen again, I think this alleviates a huge percentage of that and we're being safer because we're keeping track of the positive cases in a much more on-demand way so we can identify who's sick, quicker."
The district hopes to have the new testing system in place by Tuesday. Terranova said Ontario County is covering the costs of the supplies, testing, and on-site training for school nurses that took place this week.
It’s not known if or when other districts will adopt similar rapid-testing programs.
A spokesperson for the Monroe County Department of Public Health said County Executive Adam Bello and health commissioner, Dr. Michael Mendoza, have been working with local schools and the hospital systems on a plan.
Julie Philipp said with 200-plus schools in Monroe County, a more comprehensive approach is needed.
She said she expects an update next week.