The Wellesley Public School COVID-19 testing program has garnered plenty of attention and plaudits in town and around the state, as the program has taken advantage of local expertise as well as grants and discounted tests. By most accounts it has operated smoothly, and it has adapted based on changing economics and technology.
But some town officials and board members, including those from the Select Board, Board of Health and Advisory Committee, continue to raise questions about the program from a public health and financial perspective.
Board of Health members have stressed their focus is on the entire community, especially those most at risk of illness from COVID-19. They want resources to protect the public from COVID-19 to go to those who most need it.
The WPS testing program has picked up seven positive tests, including a new one announced on Friday, Nov. 6 by WPS Director of Nursing Linda Corridan.
Board of Health members have been careful not to formally endorse the program spearheaded by WPS and parent volunteers.
“We don’t own it,” Board of Health Chair Shep Cohen said during a board meeting this week, while also stressing that the board has been and is willing to assist the schools however it can, from monitoring to providing operational advice. The board has made recommendations such as moving initial testing from the MLP to Wellesley High due to parking concerns, for example. Cohen meets regularly with School Committee Chair Linda Chow.
While they haven’t endorsed the surveillance phase of the program, the board does support it as a better and more cost effective approach than blanket use of more expensive diagnostic tests, said the Board of Health’s Marcia Testa Simonson during a Nov. 2 board meeting. “Let’s see what comes out during the highest surge peak we’ve had. If it’s really, really low then it’s not cost effective to do this. The data is just coming in now…,” she says. (Note: We updated this post on 11/9 after Chow responded to our questions via email).
The swiftness with which the WPS program came together—fueled by teacher union demands and a lack of clarity from the state on rules for restarting school this fall—at times has caught the town’s Board of Health off guard about next steps in the testing program (such as when voluntary surveillance testing began with middle and high school students). Though as Chow notes, school officials have participated in more than a half dozen Board of Health meetings over the past few months to share plans and answer questions.
“I imagine that other members of our community would agree that unprecedented times call for unprecedented and innovative measures,” Chow says.
While appreciating WPS efforts to roll out viral testing to get kids and teachers into classrooms, the Board of Health and the Board of Selectmen cautioned early on that the WPS program might spark demands from other departments across town.
“Naturally when you have a group like the schools doing testing to the volume they are doing now, you’re starting to get other departments in town asking why isn’t testing available for us?” said Health Director Lenny Izzo, who has been contacted by the head of the local firefighters’ union about testing.
Izzo is currently in talks with Wellesley Fire Chief Rick DeLorie regarding possible testing scenarios for firefighters, who while geared up with personal protective gear, are regularly put in harm’s way on calls, and are at risk of spreading COVID-19 among themselves given the close quarters they keep.
Izzo says he can envision Wellesley Police, DPW, or other groups lining up next.
COVID-19 testing of the dozens in the fire department is of course a whole different ballgame than testing thousands across the public school system. What’s more, members of the fire department trained as EMTs might be more equipped to handle certain aspects of a testing operation, so the town could get creative in how it approaches this.
The town is exploring everything from its partnership with Newton-Wellesley Hospital to whether leftover tests from the WPS surveillance testing might be an option.
The Wellesley Advisory Committee’s John Lanza raised questions during the Nov. 2 Board of Health meeting about how COVID-19 testing is being funding at WPS.
Lanza said if the funding is all private, more power to the school system. But if public funds are used, then the town should be clear on what controls are in place for that. He was planning to connect with School Committee liaisons to learn more.
What is known is that the Wellesley Education Foundation, which has led private fundraising for the program, seeded baseline testing with a $250,000 gift and is focused on raising more money for assurance testing.
Select Board member Beth Sullivan Woods commented during the Nov. 2 Board of Health meeting that “the way the costs are being managed has not been clear,” but that the School Department would know.
The school system has indicated that the program might not be funded entirely from private funds, however, she said. Much should become clearer as the Select Board and School Department continue budget discussions.
The School Committee’s Chow says that the School Department was asked to identify COVID-related and potentially CARES Act eligible expenses in mid-September, and estimated $300K for the weekly surveillance testing program, based on diagnostic testing. Since then the economics of the testing landscape have changed greatly and Wellesley Education Foundation stepped up with its big donations. “Even though we will not end up spending town money on the pilot, the School Department continues to use $300K as a placeholder for COVID-testing because, once the pilot testing program is completed (shortly before the holidays),” Chow says, “it is possible that we will want to continue with viral testing into the second half of the year and we may or may not be able to count on private funding in the future.”