Testing not rapid enough to keep kids in school

Less than a quarter of testing sites offer same day results, a requirement for unvaccinated students to return to school or face a 10-day quarantine

VISALIA – There are plenty of testing sites in Tulare County for anyone to get an appointment and receive their results in two to five days. But now that school is back in session for a full schedule, parents are realizing there are not enough rapid testing sites to keep their kids in school.

Rapid testing, also known as antigen testing, is a less invasive swab of the nostrils with results in 15 minutes to an hour. Rapid testing has been available in Tulare County since last September when Kaweah Health was among the first to offer it at its Quick Care clinics on Hillsdale and Sequoia Prompt Care on Ben Maddox. This type of testing plays an important role in keeping students in school, especially in Visalia Unified, where students and staff are losing critical class time due to COVID-19 exposures after a year-and-a-half learning loss due to distance learning.

Two weeks after the county’s largest school district returned to full-day instruction, the number of teachers and students on quarantine began to rapidly rise. The week ending Aug. 26, 286 students and 249 staff members were on quarantine due to exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The following week ending Sept. 3, the numbers continued to rise with 302 students and 299 staff members quarantining. Last week was the first time since school started the numbers began to drop, but still remained high with 134 students and 112 staff members on quarantine.

VUSD requires universal masking indoors as a way to reduce the length of time students will miss class. Fully vaccinated students are not required to quarantine, do not need a negative COVID test to return to school and are only recommended to get a test within three to five days after exposure. Unfortunately, three quarters of VUSD’s 29,000 students are under the age of 12, the youngest age the vaccine has been approved for emergency use. Pfizer is the only vaccine which has received full FDA approval for ages 12 and older.

Asymptomatic students who have been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID must provide a negative before returning to school and a second negative test at least five days after the initial exposure, otherwise they must stay at home for 10 days. The only way for students not to miss more than a few hours of school is to get two rapid tests within five days. Unfortunately, there are not enough rapid testing sites in Tulare County to meet those requirements.

Since the county does not track rapid testing sites separately, The Sun-Gazette checked in with all testing sites and found that less than 25% of sites offer rapid testing to new patients and only three sites offer walk-in rapid testing. CVS Pharmacies in Tulare, Porterville and Visalia, Kaweah Health urgent and quick care sites, Premier Walk-In in Visalia, Tulare Urgent Care sites and Adventist Rapid Care in Tulare are the only sites offer rapid tests to new patients. Only Tulare Urgent Care and Premier Walk-In are accepting walk-ins for rapid testing.

Kim Batty, spokesperson for Visalia Unified, said the district only offers rapid testing for student-athletes, a requirement of playing sports. The California Department of Public Health’s guidance says high contact, outdoor sports, such as football and water polo, and indoor sports, such as volleyball and basketball, must be tested weekly and require a negative test within 24 hours of gametime. Batty did say the district was working on a possible short-term version of independent study for students who are unable to get a rapid test and need to quarantine for the full 10 days.

Carrie Monteiro, public information officer for the Tulare County Health & Human Services Agency, said the county’s website covid19.tularecounty.ca.gov does offer a list of testing sites broken down into three categories—free testing, mobile bus testing and health care providers.

“Note these testing locations offer a variety of COVID testing options, both antigen rapid testing and PCR testing,” Monteiro said. “We encourage people who are seeking testing to call the location directly to find out which type of COVID testing the site is currently offering because the type of COVID test can vary by location.”

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