From the Editor: Another month without school gives COVID mitigation a chance to work
How many of you felt a sense of relief when the St. Mary School Board voted Thursday to delay the opening of school?
The board pushed back the opening to Sept. 8, about a month later than previously planned. So kids won’t be going back to school during what is, at best, something near the end of the resurgence of COVID-19 cases in St. Mary since mid-June. We’ll have to see what the situation is after Labor Day.
This is not a knock on the plans for reopening that administrators and faculty members have been working on for at least a month to protect students from COVID-19. Nor is it criticism of the board members who resisted a postponement of the resumption of classes. We have important reasons to want to see kids go back to school.
Education is one. A few months with missing or reduced classroom time is a big deal for students nearing graduation, who have plans to make for their life after high school. For children just starting pre-K or kindergarten, missed or diminished classroom time could affect their development in ways that will hurt them throughout their school years and maybe for the rest of their lives.
Then there the kids who rely on schools for a nutritious meal, special educational needs, health care or even the mandatory reporting role of teachers who suspect child abuse.
Economically, this is a bad time to keep a major St. Mary employer, the school system, out of action.
The parish already lost the weekly $600 federal unemployment enhancement, which expired in July. The boost from Uncle Sam brought millions of dollars into St. Mary every month.
Over the weekend, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would bring back a $400 weekly unemployment enhancement. That would be good news for the more than 2,000 unemployed people in St. Mary, not to mention for the stores where they buy groceries and pump gas.
It’s not clear the president has the power to reinstate a benefit enhancement by executive order. Nor is it clear who will challenge his executive order three months before a national election.
Yet for all those good reasons to reopen the schools, there’s one big reason not to. And we saw it beginning in mid-June, when COVID-19 came roaring back after we thought it was under control.
I’ve covered the School Board off and on for the last few years. I’m sure all the board members would agree that the system’s first and most important responsibility is to protect students from harm.
On Monday, when schools were originally scheduled to resume classes, the school system just wasn’t in a position to honor that commitment.
The number of new COVD-19 cases in St. Mary Parish has been going down for a couple of weeks. This region has more unused hospital capacity, on a percentage basis, than in hot spots such as Lafayette or Lake Charles.
If the trends continue, we’ll be in better shape Sept. 8. At least administrators, teachers, staff members and students will have a better chance to keep everyone safe.
Somebody recommended a podcast last week: “This Week in Virology.”
Sounds like a rollicking adventure yarn, doesn’t it?
But, as it turns out, “This Week in Virology” turned out to be interesting because of a provocative claim that federal officials and public health authorities have fouled up U.S. coronavirus testing to a fare thee well.
The author of this indictment is Dr. Michael Mina, who heads Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
We went wrong, Mina says, because most of the testing being done in the country is done with the PCR or RT-PCR tests.
That test works by looking at the genetic material in a sample and determining whether it fits the COVID-19 DNA profile. Part of that process is replicating millions of copies of the virus using a process called polymerase chain reaction. That’s where PCR comes from.
PCR tests are sensitive and accurate. They’re also relatively expensive. Online sources say each test costs at least $15, and more if the test goes to a lab out of state.
Tests haven’t been available in sufficient numbers. Not enough testing materials are available, and testing is slowed because of sporadic shortages of swabs, chemical reagents and the chemicals the samples are placed for their journey to the lab.
PCR tests have also been slow in many cases, mostly because the capability to process tests at hospitals or big commercial labs acts as a bottleneck. It doesn’t do much good to test for a disease that might be with you for only two weeks if it takes a week or 10 days to get the results.
Another sort of test, the antigen test, looks for the presence of antibodies developed by the body to fight the novel coronavirus. The antigen test is cheaper and faster, but it’s not 100% clear that the body makes antibodies before we’re able to infect others. So it may be prone to false negatives.
Mina, the Harvard physician, argues that we’d be better off with a less accurate test that’s cheap enough and quick enough to use frequently, maybe even daily, on a larger percentage of the population.
At least one such test is headed for the Food and Drug Administration for approval. The new test might not make it.
That’s because the FDA is insisting on a high level of sensitivity and accuracy, better than the 50% the new test offers, and because companies are reluctant to be accused of putting a flip-of-the-coin test on the market.
But Mina says the low level of accuracy occurs among people who have been recently infected and aren’t shedding the virus yet, and people who are near the end of the infection, when viral levels are low.
By the time the viral level is at its peak and the patient is able to infect others, even the less sensitive test will return a positive result, he said.
If the test misses a case because the virus hasn’t reached contagious levels yet, it’s no big deal, Mina said. You’ll test again tomorrow, because this test costs only $1.
When the new test does come back with a positive result, the person knows it’s time to quarantine for a couple of weeks, protecting others from infection.
The test is fast, too, with results in less than an hour. And some reporting on the new test says acquiring the sample may be as easy as applying saliva to a test strip.
That means no more nasopharyngeal swabs, the part of the test experience that makes the biggest impression on the minds of patients — almost literally.
Bill Decker is managing editor of The Daily Review.