Brookline transitions to pooled testing to mitigate spread of COVID-19


Jennifer Barrer-Gall heads down to the clinic at the Old Lincoln School (OLS), where she quickly swabs her nose, seals her sample tightly in a tube and returns to her classroom, expecting to receive her COVID-19 test results within the next 24 hours. This tube will journey to a laboratory at the Broad Institute, a research center run by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Barrer-Gall is one of the many Public Schools of Brookline staff members who participated in the three-week voluntary individual testing program through the Broad Institute using PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests. PCR tests detect the genetic material of COVID-19 in samples collected from anterior nasal swab tests.

With over 1350 tests processed, Brookline has only encountered two positive individual testing results, meaning a low positivity rate of 0.15 percent compared to the general population. The individual testing program was met with generally positive feedback from faculty.

Brookline is now planning on switching from individual to pooled testing through a state-funded program run by the Massachusetts Departments of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and Massachsetts Department of Public Health (DPH).

According to the DPH, the town deemed the switch necessary after viewing the latest data, which suggests that Brookline has significantly lower case counts than other municipalities. Pooled testing is less expensive as it requires fewer tests conducted by grouping “pools” of staff members together and conducting a PCR test on one collective sample. This collective sample would comprise the genetic material collected from each individual test from members of the pool.

Barrer-Gall said she was ecstatic after hearing of the individual testing program.

“Honestly, I kind of yelled, ‘finally!’ I’m really happy that we finally have some sort of testing program here at Brookline. I think it’s essential,” Barrer-Gall said.

Many other faculty members at the high school had similar responses. High school nurse Megan Day said that she has been met with generally positive feedback.

“I think people were grateful to have access to the voluntary free testing for asymptomatic cases, and I’d like to think it made people feel more comfortable being in school, for staff being back to work,” Day said. “I think it gives people a sense of security, which helps to improve morale and overall comfort in the workplace and the school.”

Teaching in the hybrid learning model, Barrer-Gall highlighted the importance of consistent testing.

“I feel a whole lot safer knowing that we’re testing and even though we’re not testing the whole school population, I think a little bit is better than nothing,” Barrer-Gall said. “I wish this had happened sooner, but I’m grateful we have it now and moving forward.”

OLS nurse April Armstrong identified one potential downside to an increased feeling of safety.

“People sometimes can become a little complacent or think they’re safer because they are part of asymptomatic testing and those tests are looking at one little point in time, so you’re not okay for a whole week just because you had that one test done,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong noted that tests only apply for the specific time they are conducted and do not guarantee that one has not contracted COVID-19 at any later point.

“It adds a layer of knowledge and safety, but only if you continue doing sort of all the other mitigation strategies of keeping distance and using caution when spending time with people outside of your own household,” Armstrong said.

The Brookline Advisory Committee allotted $300,000 to the testing program in December of last year in response to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts. The program’s goal is to verify the success of Brookline’s existing mitigation measures and identify areas to improve.

After being met with extremely low rates of positive COVID-19 tests, the town felt prepared to shift towards pooled testing. Pooled testing is less expensive as it requires fewer tests conducted by grouping “pools” of staff members together and conducting a PCR test on one combined sample.

In the pooled testing run by the DESE and DPH, testing service providers will supply schools with test kits and testing software for free. The state will fund testing until March 28, at which point Day said the town will reassess their testing programs. In the future, the town looks to incorporate students in the pooled testing model.

Armstrong said that pooled testing was a better long-term asymptomatic testing method for Brookline.

“Because of the low likelihood of someone being sick, there’s not as big of an urgency of finding out someone’s status since there are no symptoms,” Armstrong said.

Day said the Brookline community should continue to follow mitigation strategies with the introduction of the new type of testing.

“Pooled testing is great, but it should not replace other responsibilities we all have and what that looks like for everyone is a bit different,” Day said. “I have a lot of faith in the community, I see that people are being responsible and trying their best, and I would hope that people would continue to do so even with the testing.”