RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The state is expanding a pilot program that will make more than 2 million rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 available to public and charter K-12 schools that want them, state Department of Health and Human Services officials told CBS 17 News.
Nearly 3 million BinaxNOW tests were given to North Carolina by the federal government from last October through January, part of an infusion of 142 million tests sent by Washington to the states since last September.
As of late February, North Carolina only distributed about 721,000 of them — in part to local health departments, colleges and schools, law enforcement and corrections agencies — with DHHS spokeswoman Catie Armstrong saying the agency “took a cautious, strategic approach to learn more before conducting wide-spread distribution.”
Over the next 2-3 months, the agency will begin sending those tests to public school districts and charter schools that opt into the program for diagnostic and screening testing.
Dr. Aditi Mallick, a professor of medicine at George Washington University and a member of the DHHS COVID-19 response command center, told CBS 17 News that the agency recommends every adult at a participating school be tested once a week along with anyone — students, teachers or staff — who is symptomatic. Consent from a parent or a guardian would be required, she said.
“Folks were telling us that this helped them feel more confident in being able to go back to school,” Mallick said. “Yet another tool kit in the toolkit of universal masking and social distancing and good hand hygiene and now vaccination, right? All part of these layers of mitigation that make being in the classroom as safe as possible.”
It’s possible the program may expand to offer screening testing for middle- and high-school-aged students, Mallick said.
She said the districts or charter schools may decide who administers the tests — possibly a school nurse — while recognizing the danger of putting too much additional responsibility on teachers.
“We would be looking to roll out screening testing for older students … moving forward, but not starting there out of the gate and part of that is out of respect for the fact that our colleagues in the classroom are balancing a number of challenges right now, or a number of competing demands on their time,” Mallick said. “So we want to really offer this as an opt-in resource to help make being in the classroom as safe as possible and balancing that against what might be perceived as excess burden of having to test a lot of people.”
One lingering issue with antigen tests is reliability — while a positive result is almost certainly trustworthy, false negatives are significantly more prevalent.
A solution to that, Mallick says, is frequency.
“The advantage of serial screening is that if you don’t catch it the first time, you’ll catch it the next time, hopefully, right?” she said. “So part of this is you can in some ways get around the lower sensitivity of the test by testing more frequently, and testing more people more frequently, and that’s just sort of the law of large numbers.”
Issues with accuracy are part of what led many states to avoid using the millions of antigen tests they received from the federal government in late 2020 and earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Mallick says North Carolina spent that time learning how the tests “perform in the wild” from other states while calculating how they could best be used before coming up with the plan to use them in schools.
“At a certain point, some testing — even if it’s with a less-sensitive test like an antigen test — is better than no testing,” Mallick said. “So we were able to teach some of our peer states just in the way that we learned from others.”
CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.