AUGUSTA — The Mills Administration announced Tuesday it will partner with Ginkgo Bioworks Inc. to offer a new COVID-19 testing option to Maine schools that allows them to easily test many students and staff at once, supporting the continued safety of Maine classrooms.
Through the partnership, launching in May, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Education will offer any public PK-12 school administrative unit or private K-12 school the option to provide free weekly “pooled” PCR testing for COVID-19.
Pooled testing involves collecting swabs from small groups of consenting students and staff, such as from one classroom, combining the test samples in a "batch" or "pool," and then testing the single pooled sample.
“Testing for COVID-19 remains critical to identifying infected individuals early, often before symptoms appear, and limiting outbreaks,” said Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew. “Under this partnership, schools will have another tool to help keep transmission rates relatively low and continue welcoming children into classrooms safely this spring, summer, and fall.”
“Pooled testing allows schools to be on the lookout for COVID-19 in their communities and to respond quickly to any positive cases,” said Dr. Nirav D. Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “We welcome Maine schools to participate in this program that will help keep their staff, students, and communities safe from COVID-19.”
“Pooled testing is an additional tool to assist Maine educators in their ongoing efforts to safely provide for the educational, nutritional and social/emotional needs of their students,” said Maine DOE Commissioner Pender Makin. “This is another example of our efforts to ensure that Maine schools have access to the information, resources and best practices, all informed by science, to protect the health and safety of all school community members.”
“Pooled testing is a powerful tool that Mainers can leverage to give students, teachers and families the confidence and data to continue or return to in-person learning,” said Matthew McKnight, Ginkgo Bioworks’ Chief Commercial Officer. “We built Concentric by Ginkgo, our public health and biosecurity effort at Ginkgo, because everybody's health is connected. We're proud to do our part as America gets out from under this pandemic, and look forward to supporting communities across Maine as they bring pooled testing to their school districts.”
Ginkgo’s pooled testing program provides all the training and testing materials necessary as well as staffing, lab, and data processing services. The program is used by schools in hundreds of communities across the country, including Baltimore Public Schools and Massachusetts K-12 schools.
If pool results are positive, the individuals in that pool are retested using a rapid BinaxNOW antigen test or PCR test. The positive individual(s) would then be sent home to begin their isolation period to limit the number of additional people infected.
Schools that opt in to the program will collect consent forms from parents/guardians who support their children’s participation.
Maine DHHS and DOE have invited school and school administrative unit leaders and school nurses to attend one of two informational webinars on the new pooled testing program this week to learn about adopting this testing option for the remainder of the current school year, summer programming, as well as the 2021-2022 school year. Maine schools that choose to participate may begin pooled testing in mid-May, with the program expanding on an opt-in basis through the fall of 2021.
Pooled testing joins the strategies already part of Maine’s Framework for Reopening Schools and Returning to In-Person Instruction, including symptom screening, physical distancing and facilities improvements, masks/face coverings, hand hygiene, and use of personal protective equipment. Maine schools have been safely open since the fall by adhering to these requirements and by following the protocols for identifying close contacts. Additionally, many schools have utilized BinaxNOW rapid antigen testing, provided at no cost to the schools through Maine DHHS, to quickly confirm and isolate positive cases in schools.
Maine people can additionally help keep schools safe by getting vaccinated, following the health and safety precautions, including wearing masks, keeping physical distance and practicing hand hygiene.