State-run program to provide COVID testing to child care centers could expire this summer

As the number of COVID cases declines in the state, testing may seem like a lower priority for adults. But for children under five, who cannot be vaccinated, experts say testing can still be a crucial tool in preventing the spread of the virus.

Since last summer, the state has stepped up a program to provide free COVID testing to thousands of child care centers, but the contract for that program is up this summer and the state has yet to commit to it. to prolong. This worries some experts who fear that COVID cases will rise again in the fall.

Even though the number of adult cases and hospitalizations have gone down and vaccination rates have skyrocketed, “nothing has changed in child care, and I think people are forgetting about that,” he said. said Sarah Muncey, who runs a Massachusetts nonprofit daycare center called Neighborhood Villages, which runs the COVID testing program The fact that most children don’t get as sick as adults when they get COVID isn’t really reassuring for parents, said Muncey.

“And so everyone can let go of the fear and laugh about how we used to Lysolate our runs,” she said. “And if you’re the parent of a zero-to-five-year-old or have a nursery, nothing has changed.

Last year, the state contracted with Neighborhood Villages to run a COVID testing program for daycares. Unlike K-12 schools — overseen by a state commissioner and local superintendents — the state’s roughly 7,400 child care centers have spent the past two years largely figuring things out for themselves. The state’s Department of Early Childhood Education and Care has engaged neighborhood villages to reach out to child care centers and provide them with testing resources and training, Muncey said. They started in June, offering weekly PCR tests, with samples sent back to a lab. In January, they made rapid antigen tests available.

“As people have gotten better at using them and have become more comfortable with them, I think it’s become clear that this kind of testing is something we’ll need on an ongoing basis to get through the next two years, and it’s doable,” Muncey said.

With the number of cases lower now, it may not be necessary to test children every week, said Stephen Kissler of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

“Corn [rapid antigen tests] are still extremely helpful if a child develops symptoms or if a child has been exposed to someone, at daycare or at home, who has COVID,” Kissler said. “It can really help prevent a child from showing up at daycare when they’re infected and causing a much bigger outbreak there, or vice versa from an outbreak happening at daycare than they bring back. not at home with his family.”

Among the child-testing daycares is Better World Family Childcare, which Sandra Rodriguez runs with her husband out of their Revere home.

“It’s time to do ‘one, two, three!'” Rodriguez called the kids one day last month, using a term she coined to collect test samples, as she counts to three in dabbing each of their nostrils. The kids all did a great job standing still, as they are used to it now. They’ve been doing these tests every week since the state introduced PCR testing for child care centers last summer. Now, Rodriguez said, she also uses rapid antigen testing from the state program.

“But that’s only when they have symptoms,” she said. One of the children was tested earlier in the week for a runny nose, but his test came back negative, she said.

So far, about half of daycares in the state participate in the free rapid antigen testing program. And fewer than 300 child care centers are currently performing the weekly PCR monitoring tests.

Everyone can let go of the fear and laugh at how we used to Lysolate our errands… If you’re a parent of a zero to five year old or have daycare, nothing has changed .

Sarah Muncey, Neighborhood Villages

Other daycares may not participate because they already have a lot on their plate, said William Eddy of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care.

“Massachusetts’s preschool system is extremely stretched right now,” Eddy said. “Our workforce is tough. We have classrooms across the state closed because we can’t have a teacher in the classroom. And I think many programs were hesitant to take on a new task of screening children and were much more comfortable leaving it up to parents and letting parents do it at home.

The state allows daycare programs to send the tests home, so parents can take the tests there if a classmate of their child tests positive. But some child care centers say even the administrative burden of distributing these tests, ensuring they are used correctly and reporting the results to the state program is too much for them to bear.

The thousands of daycares using free PCR and rapid antigen testing could potentially lose access to the program this summer. Neighborhood Villages’ contract to run the daycare testing program ends at the end of June — potentially just before another COVID spike.

“We’ve seen big increases in cases here in the northeast that have really coincided, most of the time, with the fall and winter months,” Kissler said. “So at least having the tests available to use would be really important and really valuable.”

Kissler added that new variants and subvariants — such as the BA.2 subvariant that is contributing to a spike in COVID in Europe — continue to make the pandemic unpredictable.

“So I think the most important thing is to have the ability to make our response quick and agile to be better suited to the situation on the ground,” he said. “And I’m really concerned that if we start removing some of these programs, it will be too difficult to reactivate them when we need them again.”

A spokesperson for the state Department of Education and Early Childhood Care said it is reviewing the daycare’s testing program and future needs.

Ryan H. Bowman