COVID-19 cases remain low in Utah’s K-12 schools, public health officials consider testing programs a success

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – COVID-19 testing programs in Utah’s K-12 schools are considered a success by public health officials.

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Data collected by the Utah Department of Health and University of Utah shows between Nov. 30 to March 20, Utah schools tested 165,078 students, 59,552 of them tested on more than one occasion. Of all tests, the study shows 1,886 students tested positive for COVID-19.

“With these rapid antigen tests, to have that serial testing, frequency is capturing more positives than if we were doing just one testing event,” says Kendra Babitz, the health department’s COVID-19 testing coordinator.

While percent positivity remains relatively low, Babitz says some may think testing programs were not worth the effort. But she believes it has been.

“When we see that low percentage, that means we’re capturing those positive individuals and removing them from that school and community setting before it can spread to others and become a real problematic outbreak scenario,” she says.    

Because of the ‘test to play’ and ‘test to stay’ initiatives, the study shows testing allowed for 95% of more than 11,000 high school extracurricular competition events to go on and saved 109,752 in-person instruction days for students.

“For most students, being able to attend school in-person and participate in extracurricular activities is best for their learning as well as their social and emotional well-being,” says Adam Hersh, MD, PhD, senior author on the study, a U of U professor, and Utah HERO investigator.  

‘Test to stay’ has been signed into legislation and will go beyond this school year.

However, Babitz says COVID-19 case count percentages are being raised to 2%, rather than one.

“When you see schools reach that case count at 2%, they are required to do testing.

As for ‘test to play’, it goes until the end of this school year, and Babitz says the state is in conversation of if it will continue in the fall.

“We’re hoping that some version of ‘test to play’ continues, but possibly in those younger age groups that aren’t eligible for the vaccine yet, where it’s more important to have regular testing” she says.

For students who are vaccinated, Babitz says they do not have to participate in either the ‘test to stay’ or ‘test to play’ programs.

With summer almost here, many students will be attending camps, events, or activities. Babitz says with testing not being provided on a regular basis through school, students can still be tested at COVID-19 testing sites.

“Testing should not be a barrier to anyone who needs it; including if there’s any hesitancy with having a summer camp or an event, whether it’s indoors or outdoors, that can be accessible to them.”

For anyone hosting an event that may have vaccinated and non-vaccinated individuals, Babitz says to contact the health department to have a mobile COVID-19 testing team on-site.

The health department and U of U’s results were published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

“It’s really excited to see Utah be highlighted for these efforts,” she says. “We’re really excited to be able to share this and promote this and have other states take these lessons learned and see how they can use these to develop their own testing programs.”

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