Counties struggle to find enough supplies for school test-to-stay programs

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An at-home COVID-19 test distributed by the Tompkins County Health Department. Schools were one point of distribution for the tests, which have been in particularly high demand since the holidays. (Photo Courtesy of Tompkins County)

ITHACA, NY (WSKG) — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul wants schools to adopt test-to-stay programs. But with less local contact tracing and changes to the isolation process, some counties say a test-to-stay program might not make sense anymore.

If you’re not familiar with test-to-stay, here’s a quick rundown. If an unvaccinated student is exposed to someone at school who tests positive, they would normally have to quarantine. But with test-to-stay, the school can opt to test that student instead. And if they test negative and don’t have any symptoms, they can stay in school.

Steuben County was one of the first to implement the program this past fall. County Executive Jack Wheeler said they’ve had a lot of success. But, he said they might have to change their approach. County health departments are no longer obligated to do contact tracing because of the highly contagious Omicron variant — there have been just too many cases to track.

“It’s going to be more difficult to know for certain who are contacts and who would potentially be subjected to test-to-stay,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said Steuben has enough test kits for now. But supplies were hard to find even before this new wave of demand. He said the county’s schools have been going through over a thousand tests each week, just for test-to-stay programs.

In Tompkins County, Health Director Frank Kruppa said there’s just not enough tests and people to administer them.

“In coordination with our local school leadership, the Health Department’s made the decision that we’re not going to authorize tests-to-stay at this point,” Kruppa said at a town hall meeting earlier this month.

Several parents at the town hall criticized that approach. But Kruppa said with all the requirements of test-to-stay and the lack of resources, it’s just not worth it for Tompkins County. 

Kruppa said that many of the contact cases in Tompkins County come from outside the school setting, which would disqualify them from test-to-stay under state guidance. Tompkins County also has some of the highest vaccination rates in the state — and asymptomatic vaccinated children are exempt from quarantine anyway.

Chemung County, in contrast, has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state at around 52%, according to state data. That county implemented test-to-stay programs in November.

County Health Director Pete Buzzetti said he’s hopeful that the state’s stamp of approval over the programs will make it easier to supply schools with tests.

“We’re kind of hoping, and we’re being promised that these test kits — over the counter test kits and antigen test kits — are going to become more readily available,” Buzzetti said.

He said it’s not just test-to-stay programs that require tests. Schools in Chemung County perform pool testing and are distributing at-home tests among students. Some schools also need PCR test capability. 

All school districts must test unvaccinated teachers and staff weekly, which can pose a larger burden for counties with lower vaccination rates like Chemung.

County officials across the region said they recommend kids and adults get vaccinated and boosted if they haven’t done so already.