School districts to roll out COVID-19 saliva screenings
A growing number of suburban school districts are preparing to roll out a COVID-19 saliva screening program aimed at curbing the spread of the virus as students return to in-person learning.
Naperville Unit District 203 is the latest to sign off on the testing, following the lead of Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200, Glenbard Township High School District 87 and others that have recently approved contracts with Safeguard Surveillance LLC.
The goal is to reduce transmission in schools through early identification of potential COVID-19 cases, particularly those which may be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, District 203 Superintendent Dan Bridges said. The voluntary tests will be offered weekly to all staff members and secondary-level students participating in a hybrid learning model, which is on track to start the week of Jan. 25.
District officials hope at least 70% of eligible students and employees will opt in to "help us be ahead of any sort of spread within our schools as we bring more people into our buildings," Bridges said. "The more participation we have in this, the better."
The school board on Monday unanimously authorized a maximum $2 million agreement with Safeguard Surveillance to provide testing kits for up to 12 weeks. At an estimated $11 per sample, Bridges said the total cost will likely come in below that amount.
The process involves spitting into a tube, which is labeled with a bar code, placed in a sealed bag, collected by the school and sent to the lab, according to district documents. Individuals would be notified within 24 hours if the screening detects a high viral load, at which point they would be advised to isolate and take a diagnostic PCR test.
Safeguard Surveillance has reported a false-positive rate of less than 0.01% since the testing was first implemented in late August at LaGrange District 102, documents show. Prior to winter break, the screenings detected high viral loads in 53 employees or students -- more than 80% of whom were asymptomatic, Superintendent Kyle Schumacher said.
"That's probably our biggest win," he said. "We have probably saved a lot of people from catching COVID or having to enter quarantine."
The program was launched by school board Vice President Dr. Ed Campbell, a molecular virologist who became aware of colleagues developing screening tests in other states. He was able to duplicate the surveillance strategy locally.
By October, Campbell was becoming increasingly confident in the accuracy of the tests, which were being conducted out of a District 102 science facility, he said. He launched Safeguard Surveillance, signed a month-to-month lease in Brookfield and has since expanded his operations to districts such as New Trier, Glen Ellyn districts 89 and 41, and Glenbrook High School District 225.
"I have a really strange business model where I hope to be out of business by June," Campbell said.
Other suburban districts are working to implement their own testing protocols. In Palatine Township Elementary School District 15, symptomatic staff members can use a take-home saliva testing kit, which is then mailed overnight to California-based Ambry Genetics with results expected in 36 hours, spokeswoman Morgan Delack said.
Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 is exploring ordering 5,000 saliva-based diagnostic tests, which would be primarily for symptomatic employees.