School COVID Testing Program Yields Few Cases in Westchester

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The first month of weekly COVID-19 testing of students, teachers and staff in Westchester’s schools designed to avoid shutdowns has yielded a minuscule fraction of positive cases.

County Health Commissioner Dr. Sherlita Amler and First Deputy Commissioner Renee Recchia reported that there were 22 positive cases from the first 22,000 tests administered. The program started the week of Sept. 20.

“So by doing surveillance screenings, we may be able to identify people who are asymptomatic positive individuals who would be able to spread this disease, find them, isolate them, get them out of the classroom, and by doing that, prevent spread so we don’t have large, disruptive quarantines that occur in schools,” Amler said.

Last school year, some districts were forced to shutter their buildings once the fall and winter COVID spike struck, leading some angry parents to argue that their children were falling behind because online learning was inferior.

Under the testing program, participating schools initially tested their entire student body and staff during the first week, then may test up to 20 percent of their population each ensuing week. Teachers who are unvaccinated are mandated to be tested weekly, but not students who are old enough to receive vaccines.

Only two or three districts opted out of the program, but they are getting their testing completed through other means, Recchia said.

What has been helpful is that two of the three outfits that are conducting the tests use the PCR saliva test where an individual spits into a vial. The third testing company swabs the inside of a person’s check, Amler explained. Participation might have been lower had the test required the nasal swab.

 “(Parents) have concerns about putting their children through that, and so the good news is that’s not done,” Amler said.

County Executive George Latimer said the testing program is key to keeping schools open this year to the greatest extent possible.

“We know that children don’t perform as well with remote learning or hybrid learning,” Latimer said. “In-class learning is the best possible way to do this, so we’re committed to do that but we’re committed to do it in a way that’s intelligent and pragmatic.”

The testing program is being paid for by $15 million in federal funding, Recchia said. It was estimated that if there was maximum weekly participation, the funding for the tests would be used up by the end of the calendar year, she said. However, it appears the districts will be able to get through nearly the entire school year.

COVID Case Decline Continues

The trend in the steady reduction in Westchester COVID-19 cases has continued over the past couple of weeks as the county has reached a 90 percent vaccination level during the past week, Latimer said.

As of Sunday, there were about 1,350 active cases, now just under half the number of the late August peak and more than 300 less than two weeks earlier.

Another highly encouraging sign is that there have been no COVID-19-related deaths in Westchester for 12 consecutive days as of Sunday.

“If we can continue to go without a COVID death in Westchester County, then I would consider that the best of all possible outcomes, whatever the statistics are,” Latimer said.

The county has seen 2,338 fatalities related to the virus since the start of the pandemic.

There have been nearly 750,000 adults 18 years old and up who have received at least one vaccine dose and almost 670,000 people are fully vaccinated.

Westchester joins Manhattan and Nassau County as the only counties in the state to reach 90 percent, Latimer said. The three counties had been the first to reach 80 percent vaccination status in the state several months ago.

Declines in COVID-19 cases are evident in most areas of the state. New York City had a 1.1 percent positivity rate while the seven-county Mid Hudson region stood at 2.4 percent on Sunday, according to the state’s COVID tracker. Long Island had the second-lowest rate on Sunday at 2.2 percent.

The positivity rate statewide was 2 percent on Saturday but ticked back up to 2.6 percent on Sunday.

By individual counties, Westchester declined to 0.9 percent on Sunday. Only Manhattan had a lower rate on Sunday at 0.7 percent, although the sparsely populated Hamilton County had no positive cases from 15 test results. The Bronx also stood at 0.9 percent.

All other counties in the Mid Hudson region had at least a 2.7 percent positivity rate on Sunday, with Putnam at 3.5 percent.

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