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Officials urge unvaccinated students, staff to get COVID tests 'at least once a week' during school year

The recommendation is for students and staff, regardless of symptoms.

Just weeks before the majority of students return to classrooms for the 2021-22 school year, Minnesota's education and health departments are encouraging students and staff to get tested for COVID-19 frequently. 

The recommendation was issued Tuesday amid concerns that schools could fuel COVID-19 outbreaks on the back of the very transmissible delta variant. Guidance from state now encourages all unvaccinated kids and school staff to get tested at least once a week during the school year.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said kids in sports or extracurricular activities "should be tested more frequently" than once a week, and that students and staff who are fully vaccinated should get tested if they develop symptoms or were exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. 

Kids under 12 can't yet get the vaccine, while students ages 12-18 are eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The latest data show that around half of the state's children ages 12-17 have received at least one dose, while fewer are fully vaccinated. 

  • Ages 12-15: 47% have had one dose, 38% are fully vaccinated
  • Ages 16-17: 56% have had one dose, 49% are fully vaccinated

Even before returning to schools, kids in Minnesota are testing positive at a higher rate compared to recent months. 

"Of the 5,185 cases detected among children 19 and younger since mid-June, more than half – nearly 3,000 cases – were detected in the most recent two weeks," said Malcolm.

Where COVID-19 is raging in America, schools have been prone to large outbreaks. For example, a public school district in Tampa, Florida, has scheduled an emergency board meeting this week after 5,599 students and 316 employees were either in isolation or quarantine after testing positive or coming into close contact with someone who tested positive. 

More than 16,800 Floridians are hospitalized with COVID-19, which represents approximately 1 in 5 of total hospitalizations in the U.S. There are currently just over 430 people with COVID-19 hospitalized in Minnesota

A recent preprint study (meaning it has not been properly reviewed) involving tens of thousands of Mayo Clinic Health System COVID-19 patients revealed that six months completing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine series the vaccine's effectiveness against the delta variant dropped to 42%. 

Related: Mayo Clinic: Don't jump to conclusions about vaccine efficacy study

The only vaccine kids 12-18 are federally allowed to receive is the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, whereas the Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines are permitted for people ages 18-plus. 

Testing frequently can be burdensome to families, which is why the state on Tuesday unveiled a variety of testing options available for students and staff within school buildings. Schools will have access to saliva tests, rapid testing and nasal swab testing.  

“We must use every available tool to keep our students in classrooms because we know that is best for their well-being and academic success,” said Education Commissioner Dr. Heather Mueller.

“We stand ready to partner with and support our school leaders across the state as they develop local COVID-19 testing plans that keep our students, staff and families healthy and safe.”

School leaders interested in providing in-school testing options should follow this link and request testing materials with two weeks lead time. School nurses and staff will then train others how to perform the tests, including allowing kids ages 5 and older to conduct a nasal swab by themselves. 

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