Wellesley Public Schools is now partnering with a COVID-19 testing company called Mirimus that even those leading the Wellesley effort had never even heard of a few weeks back. Coming up to speed quickly on the latest providers, tests, and experiences of other organizations is all part of contributing to and managing this complicated process aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 and boosting opportunities for in-person learning.
“I think what we’ve all learned is that the landscape of testing is changing very, very rapidly both in terms of partners and costs and logistics and all sorts of things,” said Wellesley’s Jesse Boehm, a member of the testing pilot’s scientific advisory team and the parent of two school-age children.
Wellesley’s testing program, which started right before in-person learning did, has only revealed a few positive tests among students and staff (including one at the high school last week). That is information that WPS only shares initially with those it considers being within the WPS community. Those results are not too surprising given the town’s overall case rate per 100,000 residents is among the lowest in the state for communities of its size, though consider that about 90% of WPS staff doesn’t live in Wellesley.
WPS, with significant financial backing from the Wellesley Education Foundation and the smarts of town volunteers, is now expanding its screening of asymptomatic students (Wellesley Middle School and Wellesley High) and staff using take-home saliva testing kits. Last week these kits went to all staff at all WPS schools, with kits being collected this week for processing. WMS and WHS students are being added to the mix as we head into November.
The new testing system in Wellesley balances various factors, including cost, results turnaround times (24-48 hours) and test sensitivity. The pool testing format via Mirimus is less sensitive than other testing, but also far less expensive, allowing tests to be conducted more frequently going forward (we’re talking $8-$15 per test, which can be 5x-10x less than diagnostic tests). Saliva samples will be pooled, then if any subsets of the overall pool test positive, diagnostic tests will ideally be conducted on pairs of individuals narrowed down within the subsets. Questions remain about who would administer and pay for such tests, depending on individual decisions.
WPS Supt. David Lussier stressed that such a program needs to be “economically feasible as well as operationally feasible.” The saliva testing kids need to be assembled by WPS, for example, and while this isn’t difficult, it has taken a coordinated effort to recruit and train volunteers to do handle hundreds going on thousands of these per week.
Concerns on the horizon, regardless of how well the testing system goes in coming weeks, include what might happen when college students return for Thanksgiving (what Lussier dubbed “a potential flash point”) and then again for the end-of-year holiday break. The hope is that many of those students have already been undergoing a COVID-19 testing regimen.
Even as WPS expands its testing program, the Wellesley Board of Health considers how valuable it will be from a public health standpoint in that the biggest transmission concerns continue to be at long-term care facilities and within households. Once data is collected based on the current program the town should know more about how to proceed, says the Board’s Marcia Testa Simonson. “We can’t really make any assumptions now because we don’t have any data to base those decisions on,” she says.