As schools and universities go into summer break, COVID-19 testing — and health experts’ ability to track cases and the virus’ movement in the community — is likely to decline.
Since January, the total number of COVID tests conducted in Orleans Parish have declined dramatically. That’s partly because of declining demand, and partly because the city has shifted resources from testing sites to vaccinations.
Still, experts warned the New York Times today that the South, which remains undervaccinated compared to the rest of the country, could face outbreaks this summer. If that does happen, it’s likely to hit pockets of people who haven’t received the vaccine.
Early on in the pandemic, the city was well exceeding its goal of testing 500 people per day — a number that was calculated based on national recommendations as cases were increasingly identified.
Schools and universities were providing a consistent backstop to the city’s surveillance testing. For much of the spring, Tulane University’s surveillance apparatus, which tested undergraduates multiple times a week, accounted for between 40 and 60 percent of tests reported in the city. Meanwhile, Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the city health director, credited New Orleans public schools testing, which rolled out slowly in the spring, with providing another window into community transmission.
Chantell Reed, the New Orleans Health Department’s deputy director, told the Lens in an interview that as more of the city becomes vaccinated, the city’s emphasis has shifted from broad surveillance testing to developing policies for much rarer breakthrough cases.
“You can be vaccinated and still be positive for COVID,” she said, although the chance of being hospitalized is almost zero. “What we have looked at is what our policies, procedures, and federal guidelines look like for [those cases].”
“Before, it was the Health Department on the front line conducting community testing,” she said. “Now it is working with the hospital system and community clinics. If you’re concerned that you have COVID, then what are the procedures to come in and get a rapid test, isolate, and do contact tracing immediately. So it’s absolutely not that that’s not a focus.”
Since Tulane’s semester concluded in mid-May, its share of citywide testing has declined quickly, although it still requires testing every few weeks for students who are on campus. At the same time, the city’s weekly test count fell from 17,000 in late April, to 9,500 in late May. (Data is only available through May 26.)
Surveillance testing will continue for many of the roughly 13,000 students enrolled in the NOLA Public Schools district’s summer programs at charter schools, however. That’s just shy of one-third of the city’s enrollment.
According to Rachel Nelson, the area manager for CORE, a nonprofit that has provided community and in-school testing for the past year, CORE will visit multiple summer schools a day, five days a week, to provide tests for anyone who wants them. Somewhere between 20 and 25 schools have opted in so far, she said.
“The goal is that we come to each school that’s opted in to testing once a week, so that we have a really consistent record of what’s happening at each school,” Nelson said.
“It’s actually been super successful so far,” she added.
On CORE’s first day of testing at Warren Easton Charter High School this week, the program tested 120 students.
Since September, NOLA Public Schools has provided a weekly update on the total number of “active” cases in its schools.
It’s also possible that the city will roll out other options for testing children, many of whom aren’t eligible for vaccines. “We are meeting with summer camps and NORD, and looking at what makes the most sense for that population in terms of testing,” said Reed. “The conversation continues to evolve, … just based on what guidelines come out from the CDC, and FDA approvals, etc.”
So far, Nelson said, she can’t compare the weekly test volume during the school year with that of the summer. The test volume from the school year fluctuated week to week, and the summer program hasn’t begun serving all of its schools.
But, she said in a follow-up text, that in-school testing will remain important even going into next year: “It’s not like NOPS has a particular problem with unvaccinated staff, it’s just true that every school pretty much everywhere will have some [unvaccinated] staff and students, and that means testing is still vital.”
That shouldn’t come as a surprise: just over 60 percent of adults in Orleans Parish have received a first shot, shy of the city’s 75 percent goal.
Asked how many school staff were vaccinated, NOLA Public Schools district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the district does not track all vaccinations, in part because some staff could have received them at a private health provider. As of late March, 3,300 school staff had received vaccinations.
“It’s important to note, that many schools opted to coordinate their own vaccination programs and many educators and staff decided to use their own healthcare providers or city and state-wide vaccine access options to get their vaccines,” Alfonzo said.
At the same time, vaccinations are just beginning for those 12-year-old and older.
“Schools are going to be a consistent daily close contact bubble for communities of people, a significant portion of whom will not be vaccinated,” Nelson said. “I have some concern that, because we got used to the strains of COVID that were not some of these more aggressive variants, we feel, especially in school systems, like we kind of figured it out. But the truth is, because the testing numbers have been fairly low in the schools, we never really have gotten a super accurate read on what the infection spread looks like.”