WARWICK — As efforts to distribute the newly developed Coronavirus vaccine continue, many schools throughout Rhode Island have started transitioning to the next phase of reopening with widespread surveillance testing of students and staff. The Rhode Island Department of Health and Department of Education have made surveillance testing resources available to all schools in the state, including private schools. Among the 25 local private schools to take advantage of this offer was Warwick’s Bishop Hendricken High School, which officially began its testing program on January 25.
“This has truly been a state-wide effort to protect our students, keep us in the classroom, and stop the spread across the Ocean State,” says Hendricken’s Senior Manager for Communications and Marketing, Christian Kabbas. “This is going to be a very powerful tool for mitigating student exposure to the virus.”
The new regimen of “surveillance” testing differs from earlier diagnostic testing models in both its focus and its scope. “We’re moving away from just testing students with symptoms or known exposure to the virus,” Kabbas explains. “Because young people are especially likely to be asymptomatic carriers, surveillance testing will help us to identify positive students who would have been missed by earlier testing protocols.”
Participation in the program is entirely voluntary; so far, 70% of the student body has consented to being tested on a rotating basis.
The surveillance program employs the BiNaxNOW test, a self-administered nasal swab which produces results within 15 minutes. The testing has been integrated into the regular school day, taking place during study and physical education periods: students participating in the program will be tested once every two weeks according to the normal rotation of their classes.
“The swab is very shallow, so it isn’t a deep or painful test,” says Kabbas. “Students are given a labelled test kit with a swab and testing card at the beginning of their testing period. With a staff member observing, the student will swab each nostril while the staff member prepares their testing card with reagent. After swabbing, the student simply inserts the swab into the prepared test card, and the results are ready within fifteen minutes.”
So far, this streamlined procedure has allowed Hendricken to administer an average of 60 tests a day. The speedy pace is necessary in order to quickly identify and isolate asymptomatic carriers of the virus: any student who tests positive is immediately taken to an isolation room until a parent or guardian can arrive to pick him up.
“It’s important to note that surveillance testing is not intended to ensure that students are negative, but rather to quickly remove asymptomatic positive students from circulation and limit the potential spread of the virus,” Kabbas explains.
Surveillance testing was first introduced by the RI Department of Education in November through pilot programs in Providence, Central Falls and Lincoln. It has since spread to all but two public school districts in the state, although testing plans vary from school to school.
“In addition to providing the testing materials, the state also offered us the information and training needed to develop a plan specific to Hendricken,” Kabbas says. In return, state authorities stand to learn important data about local epidemiology patterns.
The current program is expected to remain in effect through the end of the school year, even after vaccine distribution has begun in earnest.