On Thursday, Maryland surpassed 10,000 deaths from COVID-19, the state’s grim contribution to the 670,000 deaths nationwide and the 4.5 million deaths worldwide that have occurred since the novel coronavirus emerged fewer than two years ago. The highly contagious delta variant remains the predominant strain of the virus in the United States. And the evolving mu variant, which the World Health Organization classifies as a “variant of interest,” has demonstrated in a lab setting a troubling ability to evade antibodies from both vaccination and prior infection.
Understanding this reality, we have a question (or 10) for the majority of school systems in Maryland that are still not planning to implement routine coronavirus testing among unvaccinated students and staff: What are you waiting for? What, exactly, do you need to hear to take this common-sense precautionary step, which both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommend?
As a recent Sun story noted, school officials “have limited expertise in public health.” So, why not let those who have an abundance of it guide decision making? The CDC describes such testing as an “effective way to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and help keep schools open for in-person learning.” And the AAP says it’s likely “useful for early identification and isolation” of COVID cases — something we all want.
Would it help to know that pediatric hospitalizations soared over the summer, before kids were even back in packed classrooms? Rates were up fivefold overall for minors of all ages, and 10 times for kids under 5, who are not yet eligible for vaccination, and for unvaccinated adolescents.
How about that the number of new child COVID-19 cases hit an all-time high of 251,781 for the week ending Sept. 2? Or that delta is more severe for adults, with twice as many hospitalizations as the “alpha” coronavirus, and more than two times as contagious as prior variants? Does it matter that post-vaccination cases continue to mount, with roughly 4,500 such cases diagnosed in Maryland thus far this month?
As educators, you appreciate more than most the Latin aphorism scientia potentia est — “knowledge is power.” That’s what makes this head-in-the-sand approach so baffling. Why would you want less information about what’s happening in your halls, especially when there are $189 million in federal funds available to pay for it?
So far, 14 out of 24 school systems have applied to participate in the program, but not all intend to include students in testing — if they even go forward with testing, that is. Baltimore City, which put a testing program in place back in February; and Anne Arundel, Charles and Dorchester counties say they’re all in. But Howard and Baltimore counties are only screening unvaccinated staff, not students at this point. And Harford is approved, but hasn’t yet made any decisions about follow through.
Some school systems — including Carroll County’s, which has ruled out testing altogether — have said they don’t have the staff available to carry it out. That’s an understandable concern. While screening often begins with students collecting their own samples of saliva (upper grades) or a nasal swab (elementary) and pooling them for testing, if a positive result is returned, the follow-up, individual testing is cumbersome.
Indeed, a recent Rand Corporation report, funded by The Rockefeller Foundation, that looked at early adopters of such testing, found that it can be complex to implement in schools. It also found that it’s well worth the effort, however, especially when schools are supported by their school district, local health department and testing vendors. Among the benefits: staff and families feel safer in their school communities, and testing allowed schools to break “the chain of transmission” and therefore prevent large outbreaks from ever occurring.
That last one is key: The fewer cases you have, the fewer people who are out on quarantine. Some complain that any positive leads to a quarantine for close contacts of that person, but that’s hardly a good reason to go with the “I’d rather not know” strategy. Those cautionary quarantines are far shorter than time spent out because of actual illness, and just because you don’t have a testing program, it doesn’t mean you won’t have staff and students isolating. As of Tuesday, Howard County had 952 students and 29 staff members in quarantine because of self-reported cases or close contacts with positive people.
We get that this is all still a work in progress, and that schools systems are figuring out things as they go. And it’s true that so far, only a handful of large school districts across the country have committed to asymptomatic testing to root out cases before they’re a problem, such as Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Los Angeles and New York. Still, we think this is a worthy statewide effort. Maryland has been a leader in battling COVID spread, and now is not the time to lose ground.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.