GRAPHIC BY ELSIE MCKENDRY
Expert Advisory Panel 4: Health, Safety and Logistics convened virtually via Zoom on Apr. 9 to discuss pooled testing participation, results, contact tracing and the threats new COVID-19 variants pose.
The meeting began by discussing the latest statistics concerning the pooled testing program subsidized by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). This past week, 36 percent of high school staff participated in the pooled testing program, equaling 482 tests. The total number of tests from staff and students was 2,503, all of which were negative.
Since the introduction of the program on Mar. 1, pooled testing numbers have risen each week. Jenny Tam, Senior Staff Scientist at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, who works closely with the pooled testing program, said the increasing participation is great to see in the community, but advocated for even more to be done.
“We’ve had a huge jump in participation from 25 percent two weeks ago when we tested everybody, to 34 percent this week,” Tam said. “But we can still go higher. We have masking, we have ventilation, testing is just another layer that adds protection and assurance.”
Pierce Elementary School led all Public Schools of Brookline (PSB) in student participation with 50 percent of students tested this past week.
The panel then moved to discuss close contact cases and how to deal with students in close contact with others. They also reviewed cases from other schools across the country from earlier in the year to help with guidance.
One of the studies reviewed a school in Salt Lake County, Utah where schools no longer required students to quarantine after being a close contact with an infected student if both were wearing masks at the time of contact.
The results of other studies reviewed showed strong proof that second hand infection for students in close contact while in school are a low occurrence. All studies occurred with schools that followed three foot guidelines with limited ventilation.
Ben Linas, Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases and Medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine said that quarantining would still be the safest decision to avoid inequity.
“Relying too much on testing for modified quarantining has major equity problems. Maybe not in our district, but across the state it clearly does. It has nothing to do with access, but fear of deportation and contact with the system,” Linas said. “If the state relies on modified quarantine, you are going to put a lot of disadvantaged kids in 14-day quarantine because they can’t test out.”
The panel agreed to put it on the agenda as a discussion topic for next week before moving on to COVID-19 variants.
The variants of main concern were the U.K strain (B.1.1.7), the California strain (B.1.427/B.1.429), the Brazil strain (P.1) and the South African strain (B.1.1351).
The panel also discussed the transmission rates, virulence, vaccine efficacy and percent of sequenced cases in Massachusetts compared to the original COVID-19 strain.
Linas said the percent of sequenced cases in the state could appear high to the naked eye, but were more cherry-picked numbers than official data.
“All the surveillance of sequences is purposely selected by the CDC. They went to Cape Cod because there was an outbreak there. These numbers don’t come from random sampling,” Linas said.
Deputy Director of the Emergency Preparedness, Research, Evaluation & Practice Program (EPREP) at Harvard School of Public Health Elena Savoia said that some of these variants carry a much worse reputation than what their impact was on other countries. Savoia also said that they are less worrying in the United States because of the vaccination rates.
The meeting concluded with praise from Finance Subcommittee Co-Chair Susan Wolf-Ditkoff on the high school return to full-time in-person learning.
“The PTO has really done an amazing job. If you drive by there are tents and fantastic Adirondack chairs and if you haven’t already, go take a look because it’s really great,” Wolf Ditkoff said.