Expert Advisory Panel 4 considers future of PSB pooled testing program and panel



Expert Advisory Panel 4 convened virtually via Zoom on June 4 to discuss the future of the PSB pooled testing program and ending plans for the panel and its responsibilities in the near future.

Expert Advisory Panel 4: Safety, Health, and Logistics convened via Zoom at 3:00 p.m. on June 4 to discuss the pooled testing program’s future and plans for the panel to discuss and eventually dissolve over the summer.

The meeting began with a discussion about the closure of the Public Schools of Brookline (PSB) pooled testing program, which will officially conclude next week on June 9. There has not been a positive student test from the pooled testing program since mid-April, and staff has not had one since late March.

Associate Medical Director of the Infectious Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School Nira Pollock said that while the current numbers show no need for a continuation for the program, that could change later down the line.

“No one really knows how things are going to change. This is something we know can do this and we know how to do it, and if we need to bring it back online, we could do it,” Pollock said. “The question is how to be prepared and ready to restart without actually continuing it.”

Medical Director at MassHealth and pulmonary and critical care physician at Cambridge Health Alliance Lakshman Swamy said the pooled testing program could serve a different purpose than just monitoring community rates.

“It might not be as much about what’s happening with the community rates, it would be more about when we think we don’t need those things as much anymore, as things are starting to open up,” Swamy said. “When we start talking about removing indoor masking, because at some point we will, that’s when I would say that is a different reason to pursue a pooled testing program.”

The panel planned to have a draft of town benchmarks by July, and hoped to finalize it by August.

Many of the town’s vaccinations came from the zip code 02467, which is made up of both Brookline and Newton. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MADPH) had included the citizens from 02467 in Brookline’s population total, but had given the vaccinations to the town of Newton. Instead of the reported 48 percent percent of Brookline residents fully vaccinated, the number is closer to 60 percent.

Co-Chair of Expert Advisory Panel 4 David Gacioch said this new revelation puts Brookline at a much higher rate than previously reported.

As discussed in their previous meeting, the panel decided to try to move forward with an operational manual to help future town leaders deal with another highly contagious outbreak, or to take inspiration from the effective communication strategies utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic in any other emergency to come.

Deputy Director of the Emergency Preparedness, Research, Evaluation & Practice Program (EPREP) at Harvard School of Public Health Elena Savoia said how this manual could be used in the future and that it would be important to give details about who the leaders are, their positions and what role each individual has in reporting information to the public. Savoia said that it is important to look at social capital from an institutional point of view.

“We should create a system that allows for coordination and the setting up of this network of sharing knowledge, in a way that is not dependent on specific people,” Savoia said.

This operation is being led by Associate Physician in Medicine and Division of Emergency Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School Sarita Chung, Savoia and Assistant Professor of Public Health at UMass Lowell, Serena Rajabiun.

They have applied for an approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) in order to begin.

The panel briefly overviewed the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary school Education (DESE) guidelines on the usage of fans to flow air inside schools.

The panel also discussed the new “Navigating the Summer with Unvaccinated Children” program that panel member and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in Infectious Diseases at the Boston University School of Medicine Vishaka Sabharwal is working on. This program will help families with children too young to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to better understand what activities are safe for the summer, especially as the state begins to loosen restrictions.

As the panel is approaching their last couple of meetings, they concluded this meeting with a variety of closing remarks, with panel members thanking and appreciating each other and all of the work they have done this past year.

Coordinator of School Health Services Tricia Laham said the panel represents many amazing doctors and scientists in Brookline and that she is grateful to have had the opportunity to work together with everyone.

“This group really represents the very best of Brookline and it’s been a privilege to work alongside all of you,” Laham said.