Lack of rapid tests impacts quarantine times for Douglas County students
The wait for PCR test results can take a week in some districts.
Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services launched “Keeping Kids Safe and In School” on Thursday, Jan. 20. The multimedia campaign is aimed at keeping children in the classroom as the omicron variant of COVID-19 surges through Wisconsin.
The move comes as testing clinics within Douglas County school districts that help trace and prevent the virus’ spread are lacking a key tool — rapid tests.
Children under 18 years old continue to represent the highest number of new confirmed cases, according to a news release from the health department on the new initiative. This age group also represents more than one-fifth of new confirmed cases since the end of August.
Maple, Solon Springs and Superior school districts all have testing sites on school grounds for staff, students and their families. As of this week, none of them had rapid (antigen) tests available. The only option is the more accurate PCR test, which provides results in a few days instead of a few minutes.
In the Maple School District, which has testing sites at Northwestern Middle School and Iron River Elementary School, it’s taking up to a week for PCR test results to come back. That translates into less time in the classroom.
“It would certainly affect attendance as we stress not to send children to school or employees to go to work if there are COVID-like symptoms or if they are awaiting test results,” District Administrator Sara Croney said.
The Solon Springs School District is also experiencing a wait time of up to seven days to get PCR test results. The school board grappled with the issue at its Jan. 17 meeting.
The district was given 24-hour notice when the rapid tests were no longer available, and had no information on when they would once again be an option.
“The system is broke. I’m upset that health care, law enforcement and schools are not receiving the highest priority for getting kits,” District Administrator Frank Helquist said. “That shortage of kits must be known by lots of people. How do millions of kits not be available to public schools?”
The Superior School District opened its testing clinic Jan. 12. Less than a week later, only PCR tests were available at the site.
“This is very disappointing. When we applied for the grant rapid tests were part of the service provided,” District Administrator Amy Starzecki said. “Without the rapid tests staff, students and families must wait longer for updates on test results.”
The testing dynamic is set to change again with the availability of free at-home test kits from the federal government, Solon Springs School Board member Angela Botner said.
“People are just going to test at home. They’re not going to use the school site, even when it comes available, is my theory. And therefore we’ll be losing that insight,” Botner said.
“Our testing here has given us, I think, a pretty accurate picture” of the virus spread, Helquist said.
Test results from at-home kits must be supervised by a health care provider to inform decisions involving release from quarantine or clearance for travel, according to the health department. If an unopened household kit is brought to the school and is administered by personnel on-site, the test result can be used for quarantine decisions, according to protocols the Solon Springs School Board adopted Jan. 17.
Rapid tests remain available at the testing clinic in the Marcovich Wellness Center on the University of Wisconsin-Superior campus. Testing for COVID has been available at UWS since November 2020.
“We are still seeing a demand from the community for testing,” said Harry Anderson, assistant vice chancellor of student affairs.
Residents can register at https://uws.vivi.healthcare/ for appointments from noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday at the site, 1800 Catlin Ave. Registration is required, Anderson said. The site has both rapid and PCR testing available.
A full list of testing and vaccine clinics in Douglas County is available at https://www.douglascountywi.org/1171/COVID-19-Testing-Information.