Waunakee school district officials sought feedback from their medical advisory committee this week as to whether the district should offer diagnostic COVID-19 testing to students.
Superintendent Randy Guttenberg told committee members Monday night that public-health officials had recently announced a program in which the UW was offering free antigen tests to school districts in Dane County.
Participating districts would administer the test to individuals exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. Its results would determine whether an individual was positive, or should seek further testing.
Guttenberg asked members of the committee for their thoughts about taking part in the program.
“When we talked about this in late summer or early fall, this was a piece we kind of steered away from. But certainly, right now, there is availability to be able to participate in an antigen-testing program,” Guttenberg said. “The question that we have for the committee tonight is, is this something we should be pursuing?”
Dr. Matt Anderson of UW Health noted that while an antigen test could confirm presence of the virus, it could not be used as a screening tool to clear individuals whose test came back negative.
“If the test is negative, you do need to follow it up with a PCR. So if the intention or the thought was that students who test negative would be able to come to school,” Anderson said, “that would not be the case. You would really need to still have that person go to a health system or the Alliant Energy Center to get their follow-up PCR testing.”
Anderson said given those limitations, the test may not serve the purpose the district had hoped.
“So it’s a little bit hard for me to see exactly how beneficial it is, other than the fact that somebody could be diagnosed as a positive earlier,” Anderson said. “But that person would still have to be going home. And I think, just from a standpoint of labor and knowing that you guys are stretched, I think there would be a question about if the benefit is worth the cost.”
Dr. Jeffrey Pothof, also of UW Health, said one advantage of offering the test at schools would be providing diagnostic testing to families who may lack the resources to pursue it on their own.
“I think the benefit would be particularly as a convenience for those families that maybe don’t have access to healthcare services,” Pothof said, “i.e. they don’t know where they would go get their test if their kid had symptoms. So there you might offer some benefit in that, if you do the test and the test is positive, you can take action.”
Pothof reiterated that a negative test result could not confirm absence of the virus, however.
“If the test is negative, the sensitivity and specificity of those antigens isn’t so good that you could rely on that negative antigen test to rule out a symptomatic person who tests negative,” Pothof said. “They would need a PCR, confirmatory test.”
Guttenberg said he was unaware that individuals who tested negative for antigens would need follow-up testing, and suggested that the district gather further information before considering the testing again.
“Given that feedback, I think maybe right now we just hold on this,” Guttenberg said. “There’s a couple other districts that are doing some experimentation with it. And we can see kind of how they’re utilizing it, what they learned from that process, and we can bring it back here if we find some value that they’re bring to it. But I guess, given the feedback that has been offered, I think I would probably want to hold right now until we had some better idea of how that could benefit us.”
Also at the Feb. 1 medical advisory meeting, committee members:
- Reviewed data on the number of staff and students who had tested positive for the virus, and the aggregate number of individuals who’d been cleared for school-related activities. Student Services Director Kurt Eley noted that both percent positivity and burden rate was trending downward.
- Received an update on the district’s vaccination efforts. HR Director Brian Grabarski reported that more than one-sixth of district staff has been vaccinated at this point. Doctors on the committee noted that artificial immunity appeared to be more effective than natural immunity.
- Discussed the effectiveness of immunizations in children under the age of 16. Anderson said trials were being conducted, the results of which had yet to be determined. Pothof said the release of that information would likely coincide with when individuals in that age group would be eligible for the vaccine.
- Addressed concerns about the balance between privacy and mental health of students. Eley reported that the district had recently changed the way it communicated information about student cases, following concerns from parents that previous communications violated HIPAA rights. Since then, teachers have expressed concern that they are unable to offer supports to those students as they are no longer notified when a specific individual in their class tests positive.