First shipment of new COVID tests arrives, but details remain scarce

Idaho public health districts have begun receiving their first shipments of rapid coronavirus tests, which could allow schools in North Idaho and Southeastern Idaho to begin testing late next week.

But some health districts have yet to disclose how testing in schools will work, or when it will begin.

Officials in the Panhandle Health District, Southeastern Idaho Public Health and Central District Health confirmed they have received shipments of tests.

“We have not started testing yet with these rapid antigen tests, but our goal is to begin by the end of next week,” Panhandle Health District public information officer Katherine Hoyer said Wednesday afternoon.

Panhandle Health, which serves five counties in North Idaho, received 5,100 tests.

Southeastern Idaho Public Health, which serves eight counties, received 3,700 tests. The tests will be available for schools next week, community health director Tracy McCulloch said.

Calling it “a game-changer for schools,” Gov. Brad Little last week unveiled a new rapid antigen testing program. Little said he would prioritize testing for schools, and said he expects to receive more than 500,000 tests from the federal government over the next three months.

Gov. Brad Little at a March 27 news conference. Sami Edge/Idaho EdNews

The state received the first batch of 35,000 tests last week and said it would immediately distribute them to Idaho’s seven regional public health districts. Health districts have already been advising schools on reopening plans and COVID-19 risk categories, and Little said the health districts would work with schools to develop guidance for testing.

Central District Health, which serves Ada, Elmore, Boise and Valley counties, received 9,600 tests and plans to distribute them “to health care providers in our community, with priority testing given to teachers and staff and anyone the state might include in that prioritization group,” public information officer Christine Myron said.

“We are working this week to firm up the plan and get answers to the many questions around the logistics of this testing opportunity,” Myron said.

Panhandle Health District will distribute tests based on need and submit results to the state. District officials say the tests work best for people with COVID-19 compatible symptoms who receive a test within 5 to 7 days of the onset of illness.

An Eastern Idaho Public Health District spokeswoman declined to comment twice when Idaho Education News asked Tuesday whether the district has received the new tests and what guidance it is issuing local schools.

“We do not want to comment on anything until we have firm plans in place,” public information officer Mimi Taylor said.

Elsewhere, Southwest District Health officials had yet to respond to questions EdNews sent Wednesday asking about testing protocols, guidance and timelines.

In interim guidance issued last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the antigen tests are less sensitive than another type of COVID-19 test, the RT-PCR test.

“CDC does not recommend using antigen tests to make decisions about discontinuing isolation,” the CDC wrote Sept. 4.

When asked about the guidance for rapid antigen testing, Hoyer from Panhandle Health said a negative result from a rapid antigen test should be confirmed with a separate RT-PCR test if there is suspicion or known exposure to COVID-19.

Southeastern Idaho Public Health has a registered nurse who is serving as the testing lead. The health district is hiring two other licensed nurse practitioners to respond to schools as needed in clusters, McCulloch said. They will also stage testing in some county offices and have drive-up testing for symptomatic teachers, staff and students at their offices.

Testing will be completely voluntary, McCulloch said.

The new antigen testing program is only one effort geared toward schools. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare also distributed about $2.5 million in grants to health districts for testing teachers and school staff.

Central District Health declined to accept its share of the funding, which was about $400,000, Myron said, since the district was not prepared to meet grant requirements.

“At present, CDH does not offer COVID-19 testing and does not have the infrastructure for this requirement, which would necessitate additional systems to be established, and the addition of personnel to administer tests, and manage the funding,” Myron said.

Instead, CDH officials said primary care providers in the community are the most appropriate source of tests.

“Our health care providers have systems in place for procuring testing materials and have established relationships with labs,” Myron said.

Boise State Public Radio first reported on CDH declining the testing grant.

CDH was the only Idaho public health district that declined the grants, said Niki Forbing-Orr, public information manager for Health and Welfare.

Forbing-Orr stressed the Health and Welfare funds are separate from Little’s testing program.

Idaho isn’t the only state grappling with testing in schools. In Tennessee, some officials are pushing back against their governor’s plan for rapid testing, saying they don’t have enough nurses to turn schools into testing sites, Chalkbeat reports.

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