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$7.8 million COVID-19 testing pilot in development to help keep Pierce County schools safe

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is developing a COVID-19 screening and testing pilot program for K-12 schools, staff and students. The Pierce County Council approved $7.8 million in federal CARES Act funds Wednesday, October 28, to begin the project.

The pilot will allow smaller rural school districts to continue with their re-opening plans. We are co-developing the details of the program with districts, the Department of Health and the Gates Foundation. School districts will apply to participate.

Testing among school populations can help to identify cases of COVID-19 and prevent outbreaks. Those under 20 account for 17.3% of new cases over the past two weeks and make up an increasing number of positive cases. Many parents, even when notified their child may have been exposed to COVID-19, do not pursue testing. Lack of testing data on children limits public health’s ability to offer accurate information on disease spread among children.

“We all want schools to get back to in-person learning as soon as it is safe to do so. Access to testing is critical in this effort,” said Director of Health Anthony L-T Chen. “Testing results will help districts decide whether to hold in-person classes. We hope this project will help keep students and staff safer when schools make the decision to reopen—and reduce the overall spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” said Chen.

“Rural areas can face greater challenges in accessing testing but are well suited for this pilot. We can apply what we learn in larger urban environments, said. Chen. “Putting rural communities first is an equity-informed approach,” he said.

Work is already underway with the Eatonville School District to increase access to testing to get children back into the classroom. Because of the additional support from the CARES Act funding, the Health Department expects to expand to other school districts. Peninsula, Carbonado, and White River school districts have already expressed interest in participating.

Health Department staff developed initial plans for the pilot program over the past week. The team shaped a final funding proposal last weekend to meet a Monday, Oct. 26 deadline for the Pierce County CARES Act funding committee.

“Planning is in its early stages but will move swiftly,” said Nigel Turner, Director of the Communicable Disease Division. “We are engaging with school districts to come up with the right mix of testing and leverage resources brought into Pierce County from Department of Health and the Gates Foundation,” said Turner.

“We will continue to work with districts on how to best balance parents and administrators’ concerns about children’s educational, social, and emotional needs; staff’s concerns about children’s needs and their own safety; and our concerns about disease transmission and community health,” said Chen.

About Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department: Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s mission is to protect and improve the health of all people and places in Pierce County. As part of our mission, the Health Department tackles known and emerging health risks through policy, programs, and treatment to protect public health. We are one of roughly 244 accredited health departments in the country and among six in the state to have met or exceeded the Public Health Accreditation Board’s quality standards. Learn more at tpchd.org.

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