Colorado school districts will have access to more than 1 million rapid COVID-19 tests per month to better track the coronavirus as the pandemic enters a new year, Gov. Jared Polis said Wednesday.
The state is one of three to partner with BinaxNOW, which produces rapid COVID-19 tests, to bring the tests to public and private schools through June, Polis said, calling the tests "easy, cheap, accurate, accessible."
"Now our schools will have that same level of intense testing that really only existed in the rarefied strata of sports teams and the White House," Polis said.
School districts and private schools can order the tests — which can be shipped directly to the homes of students and staff, or to schools and administered on site — and will be supported by telehealth appointments, he added.
It's up to the schools how they use them, but "we believe that having a test a week is very effective," Polis said, adding that they can be used on site to determine if symptomatic individuals have the virus, provide peace of mind to those who think they've been exposed and potentially end quarantines early.
Schools can continue to opt to receive N95 masks for their staff members, he said, adding that the state has provided 2.4 million masks to schools so far. The state will now also offer surgical masks for educators who prefer them, as they are less bulky, he added.
Polis said he hopes the partnership helps schools "finish out the school year on a safer note."
Locally, Colorado Springs District 11 is "actively investigating" the use of rapid tests in the district, district spokeswoman Devra Ashby said. Other districts, like Academy District 20 and Cheyenne Mountain District 12, said they were still gathering facts about the new program, which they learned of Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for Lewis-Palmer District 38 said it was "working towards" obtaining the rapid tests. Falcon District 49 "has already requested supplies to make rapid test kits available to our schools and personnel as soon as possible," district spokesman David Nancarrow said. Harrison District 2 said it has indicated its interest in home tests for staff who would like them, according to district spokeswoman Christine O'Brien.
Teachers and other education professionals can expect to be be vaccinated in March along with other "essential" workers, though school health professionals can be vaccinated now, state officials said Wednesday.
Peter Hilts, chief education officer of District 49 and chair of the Pikes Peak Area Superintendents Association, said Wednesday that area schools, along with county health officials, are "clarifying the availability and timing" regarding the vaccination of school employees, and that the vaccine would "help districts return to a more normal method of in-person instruction." He was not speaking on behalf of all members of the association, having not yet received feedback from all members, he added.
Ashby said District 11 is working with a local health system regarding future vaccinations for staff. Some school nurses who also work in hospital settings have already been vaccinated, she added.
O'Brien said the Harrison district was contacted by the county health department about vaccinating its school nurses Wednesday and is working with other agencies on how to vaccinate the rest of its staff.
Many area districts said they were compiling lists of interested staff members so they are prepared when vaccines are made available to education professionals.
In other Colorado COVID news:
— Another case of a new, highly infectious COVID-19 mutation has been diagnosed in Colorado, officials said Wednesday.
No further information was given. The number of potential cases of the mutant strain being investigated was not readily available, officials said.
A National Guardsman in his 20s who was deployed to a nursing home in Elbert County to assist with staffing was the first case in the state and country, state officials said last week, adding that his symptoms were mild and that he was isolating at his home in Arapahoe County. A second National Guardsman working at that nursing home was also suspected of having the mutant strain and was isolating at a hotel in Lincoln County, they said.
Officials Wednesday would not say if the guardsman suspected last week of having the variant is the state's second case.
The variant, known as B.1.1.7 and discovered in Europe last month, appears to be 70% more contagious than the dominant strain of COVID-19, Colorado officials have said.
— More than 2,550 new cases of the sometimes deadly virus were reported Wednesday, Polis said, and 911 were hospitalized.
— Residents and staff of long-term care facilities should be vaccinated by the end of January at the latest, officials said.
— Local public health agencies should work on vaccinating the highest-risk health care workers who have not yet been vaccinated, as well as moderate-risk health care workers and first responders, officials said. Health care providers should focus on vaccinating those 70 and older, they added.
— Hospital systems should be notifying patients who are 70 and older via their online portals when they're able to receive a vaccine, Polis said.
— The state hopes to vaccinate all interested seniors 70 and older by Feb. 28, officials said Wednesday, adding that fatalities are expected to drop 75% in the state once that population has been vaccinated.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 5 p.m. Jan. 7 to reflect that District 11 is currently unaware of exactly when vaccines will be made available to its staff members beyond the general timeframe given by the state, as the situation is fluid.