Positive Covid case numbers are now impossible to know with shift to at-home antigen testing, self-reporting
By Peter D’Auria/VTDigger and Polly Mikula State officials in Vermont are no longer gathering or publishing the number of Covid-19 cases detected in schools.
In response to questions, Department of Health spokesperson Ben Truman confirmed Tuesday, Jan. 18, that the state will no longer maintain its list of such cases, which was previously updated weekly.
The data was last updated Monday, Jan. 10.
The change comes as the state Agency of Education is urging schools to shift to a new Covid testing model, called “test at home,” in which parents of unvaccinated children will be responsible for testing their children for Covid-19 if a known positive case is confirmed in their classroom.
“With the shift to Test at Home, schools are no longer doing contact tracing,” Truman said in an email. “This means we will not have data on which cases were at a K-12 learning community location while infectious.”
Vermont will begin publishing a “pediatric cases data brief,” Truman said, which would break down Covid cases by age group, but not school or district. Health department officials already report data on pediatric cases, and the brief is “based on our case data,” according to another health department spokesperson, Katie Warchut.
The shift in data collection protocols is part of a major shift in how Vermont schools handle Covid cases.
Previously, the state recommended a program called “test to stay,” in which school officials administered rapid tests to students before classes and reported positive Covid cases to the state.
Health department officials used that data to publish a list of all schools’ reported infectious Covid cases.
But that data often lagged behind the numbers recorded by local school staff.
And, with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, officials expected the numbers to “lose some of their currency,” Education Secretary Dan French said at a press conference last month.
Now, it will fall to parents to test their children for Covid-19 and report positives to the state using an online form (healthvermont.gov/reportresults).
Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine explained further in an interview on NPR, Jan. 18. He said that Vermont still leads the nation in testing per capita, but now that Vermont “is transitioning to a more antigen testing approach” as is the county as a whole, it will reduce the known case numbers significantly.
“With the antigen testing we of course don’t always know the denominator of how many people chose to get tested, we rarely know who tested negative and uncommonly we know who tested positive,” Levine said. “We know people are reporting on our website, but we don’t think that’s a super high percentage of the total. So just knowing how many cases you’re dealing with in any state is a challenge now.”
At the press conference Jan. 11, French also acknowledged that the shift to at home antigen testing would have a significant impact on the collection of positive case numbers.
“We’ll lose control of that data in exchange for having more broadly distributed tests in the public,” he said.
After being forced back into remote schooling the week prior, Barstow Memorial School Principal David St. Germain wrote a email to all parents, stating that the school would no longer be treating Covid-19 as a pandemic.
“Last week did not end as we had planned,” he wrote, Sunday, Jan. 16. “Tomorrow, we will be following our last in-the-building Test to Stay protocols. Beginning Wednesday, parents will be asked to conduct the tests of their student(s) at home. Students who have been exposed to the Covid virus will be given the Rapid Test kits to take home. This change marks the turning point in treating Covid-19 as a pandemic. We are now being asked to respond like we do with other endemic viruses (ex: common cold, flu, etc.).”