The Mills Administration announced today that pooled testing for COVID-19 in Maine schools will conclude in May, given its reduced effectiveness in limiting the spread of the highly contagious BA.2 variant and the widespread availability of free and convenient at-home tests for students and school staff.
The BA.2 variant is significantly more contagious than previous strains of the virus, lowering the likelihood of detecting, identifying, and isolating an individual with COVID-19 through pooled testing before that individual has spread the virus to others. In this new phase of the pandemic, frequent use of over-the-counter rapid antigen tests has become a more effective way to protect the health of school communities. The Maine Departments of Education and Health and Human Services are supporting this strategy by making 1.1 million at-home test kits available to all K-12 schools in the state. This is enough for schools to supply every school student and staff member with a free rapid antigen test kit containing five to six tests.
The final week for schools to conduct pooled testing will be May 9-13, with the last set of results reported to schools by May 15.
During previous stages of the pandemic, when the virus was less transmissible, pooled testing effectively limited the spread of COVID-19 in Maine schools. Since the program’s launch in May 2021 through April 1, 2022, 488 schools across Maine have tested 128,990 pools, with 11,679 pools identifying positive individuals. The positivity rate has averaged 9.1 percent, reaching as high as 28 percent in January 2022.
Participation in pooled testing peaked in December 2021, with 40 percent of the population in 416 schools using the program. As of this week, 34 percent of the population in 440 schools are participating in pooled testing.
“As the COVID-19 virus changes, so must Maine’s testing strategy,” said Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav D. Shah. “Pooled testing successfully protected the health of our school communities during earlier stages of the pandemic, and frequent use of free and convenient at-home tests will continue to protect students and staff as we confront the BA.2 variant. We thank Maine schools for partnering with us in this important effort.”
“Maine schools have done a heroic job throughout the pandemic keeping schools open and ensuring the safety of students and staff. That has meant transitioning to new strategies to address new variants and phases of the pandemic,” said Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin. “While pooled testing was an important tool for schools in an earlier phase of the pandemic, regular home testing is a more effective strategy given how contagious the BA.2 variant is. By providing schools and families with access to free tests, we can continue to ensure the health and safety of students and school staff.”
“The Maine School Superintendent Association appreciates the thoughtfulness with which we are moving forward, adapting as needed to ensure our schools can remain open and safe,” said MSSA Executive Director Eileen King. “We have been grateful with the DOE’s and Dr. Shah’s commitment to meeting with superintendents to gain insight and hear feedback on operationalizing the important and evolving safety protocols and protections.”
“School boards across Maine have been tasked with ensuring that safety protocols and resources have been provided to keep schools open and students and staff safe,” said Maine School Boards Association Executive Director Steve Bailey. “While pooled testing has been a welcome tool in the prevention of the spread of COVID-19, our schools now have the opportunity to provide additional resources in the form of at-home test kits directly to all staff and students. With the BA.2 variant, these home tests will be a more efficient and effective method of detecting and preventing the spread of COVID-19.”
“Throughout the pandemic, the Maine Education Association has urged districts to follow the guidance of the Maine CDC and decisions based on science,” said MEA President Grace Leavitt. “At-home tests for all staff and students will help to detect the virus and minimize its spread so staff and students can be as safe as possible while keeping schools open as we enter these last months of the academic year.”
“School nurses continue to work in our schools, promoting health and safety on behalf of families in Maine,” said Melinda Nadeau, President of the Maine Association of School Nurses. “This change will support families and allow school nurses to focus on the continuation of point-of-care testing of symptomatic students. We look forward to returning to a focus on the whole student and traditional school health program activities that are necessary for students to be safe, healthy, and in school, ready to learn. Collaboration between our public health system and our school nurses is vital to anticipating and implementing future pandemic response needs.”
The Mills Administration has supported schools in limiting the spread of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, with most Maine schools remaining open since the fall of 2020. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has provided all K-12 public and private schools with access to pooled testing using federal funds from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pooled testing involves collecting swabs from small groups of consenting students and staff, such as from one classroom, combining the test samples into a “batch” or “pool,” and then testing the single pooled sample using a PCR test, with results taking several days. If pool results are positive, the individuals in that pool are retested using a BinaxNOW rapid antigen test.
As the pooled testing program concludes, the Department has transitioned to other federally funded initiatives to limit the spread of COVID-19 in schools and Maine communities by expanding access to at-home tests. Since DHHS launched the free at-home testing program for schools on April 7, 2022, 125 Maine schools have placed orders for 528,040 tests. DHHS and DOE continue to encourage schools to place their orders now through April 15, 2022. Test kits will be shipped to schools beginning the week of April 25. Participating schools and SAUs may distribute the at-home tests during this spring, summer, or fall, at their discretion.
In addition to this distribution of at-home COVID-19 antigen test kits to schools, DHHS encourages school staff and families to request free tests through the Federal Free COVID Tests Program and Project Access COVID tests (ACT). Through the successful Project ACT pilot, DHHS has made free tests available directly to Maine people by mail order. As of April 12, Maine households have ordered 266,140 tests through Project ACT. For more information, visit Maine’s COVID-19 Testing website.
This spring, summer, and fall, DHHS will continue to distribute point-of-care COVID-19 tests to PreK-12 schools. School nurses and health staff in school settings have used these tests for screening and diagnostic purposes. Since November 2020, DHHS has distributed 396,100 BinaxNOW point-of-care tests to schools.
DHHS has additionally distributed nearly 120,000 federally funded tests to child care facilities across the state to help limit the spread of COVID-19 while minimizing job disruptions for parents and employers.