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Rapid tests slated for general public may be diverted to schools - VTDigger

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Note: This story is more than a week old. Given how quickly the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving, we recommend that you read our latest coverage here.

Free rapid antigen Covid-19 tests ready for distribution at a VT Agency of Transportation garage in Colchester on Dec. 30, 2021. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On Jan. 6, Gov. Phil Scott announced a new initiative to mail 500,000 rapid Covid-19 tests directly to Vermont households. 

Two weeks later, more than two-thirds of those tests have been shipped to Vermonters' doorsteps. But Scott's office has now signaled that the remainder may be diverted from the general public to schools, child care providers or long-term care facilities.

Officials have not yet decided how to allocate the 150,000 remaining tests, said Jason Maulucci, Scott's press secretary, on Friday. But the administration "wanted to keep options open based on what the situation and circumstances will be at the time."

The shift comes as schools struggle to secure enough test kits to implement the state's new "test at home" guidance and as long-term care facilities face a sudden new spike in cases. 

Supplies of at-home rapid antigen tests have been limited at Vermont pharmacies throughout the fall and winter, and demand far exceeded supply at state-run distribution events before the holidays.

In a press release announcing Vermont's participation in the Say Yes! Covid Test initiative on Jan. 6, Scott made clear that the program was a pilot. Supplies would be limited, and the rollout would help the state and its partner, the National Institutes of Health, identify challenges with the mail delivery system.

The governor was also clear about the objective: to make 500,000 tests available to the general public. Scott said the program "does not replace, and should not be used to supplement, the Test to Stay programs in schools, preschools, and child care centers."

In launching the Say Yes! order form on Jan. 12, Scott's office revealed that only 350,000 tests would be available, with the rest to come at a date to be announced. Maulucci said Friday that Quidel, the manufacturer, was able to provide only 350,000 tests at the time due to limited supply. 

Debbie Newcomb gathers up boxes of free rapid antigen Covid-19 tests for distribution in December. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Those initial tests were claimed within hours. 

Quidel has not provided a specific timeline for the remaining 150,000, according to Todd Daloz, interim deputy secretary for the Agency of Human Services. But barring unexpected shipping delays, they could arrive in Vermont by late next week.

Meanwhile, the federal government has followed through on its own proposal to ship tests directly to American households.

On Tuesday, the Biden administration launched covidtests.gov, a website that allows any household to order four free tests while supplies last. (In a press release Thursday, Scott said Vermonters without internet access can order tests through the federal program by calling the Governor's Constituent Services Office at 802-828-3333.)

The initial announcement for the Say Yes! program specified that Vermont was providing tests separately from, and in addition to, planned distribution efforts by the White House. Scott's press release Thursday suggested the opposite, stating that the remaining 150,000 tests could be diverted "now that the general public has access to the new federal program."

"The federal government's now sort of covering that base," Daloz said. "And we feel like we can use those kits in a more directed manner now in the state."

Those tests could still go to the Say Yes! program, Maulucci said. But without knowing when they will be available, the administration is hesitant to make the call.

"If we've got a problem where we're short on at-home tests for schools, for example, we think it would probably be in the best interest of public health and best interest of public policy to divert tests, if need be, to schools, to make sure that they have enough," he said.

Rapid tests are the linchpin of new protocols for Vermont schools. The state Agency of Education has recommended schools cease contact tracing and "test to stay" procedures. Instead, they should provide rapid tests to all classmates of students who test positive.

But doing so can require several times as many tests per positive case, and many schools that have attempted to follow the new guidelines have quickly run out of testing supplies.

The state still has multiple avenues for obtaining tests for different constituencies, Maulucci said, and the governor's office has contacted other manufacturers to try to place more orders. But, as with shortages of personal protective equipment early in the pandemic, states are once again competing with each other to buy from a limited national inventory.

"We're always looking to get more supply of these and get them out in the field as fast as possible," Maulucci said.

Health experts say that, while rapid antigen tests are not as accurate as PCR tests, they are useful for determining whether the user is currently infectious with the Covid virus. The Vermont Department of Health recommends that people who test positive with a rapid test isolate immediately and follow all guidelines for Covid-positive individuals.

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