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Maine to launch optional 'pooled' COVID-19 testing program for schools

The Mills administration said the weekly pooled testing is designed to allow schools to test many students and staff at once

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills' administration announced Tuesday that it will partner with Ginkgo Bioworks Inc. to offer a new COVID-19 testing option to Maine schools designed to allow them to easily test many students and staff at once.

Through the partnership, launching in May, the Maine Departments of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Education (DOE) 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. 

According to the Mills administration, 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.

If pool results are positive, the people in that pool are retested using a rapid BinaxNOW antigen test or PCR test. The positive person(s) would then be sent home to begin their isolation period to limit the number of additional people infected, according to the Mills administration.

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The Mills administration said schools that opt in to the program will collect consent forms from parents/guardians who support their children’s participation.

“Testing for COVID-19 remains critical to identifying infected individuals early, often before symptoms appear, and limiting outbreaks,” Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said. “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.”

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“Pooled testing allows schools to be on the lookout for COVID-19 in their communities and to respond quickly to any positive cases,” Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah added. “We welcome Maine schools to participate in this program that will help keep their staff, students, and communities safe from COVID-19.”

The Mills administration said 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.

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“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,” Maine DOE Commissioner Pender Makin said. “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,” Ginkgo Bioworks Chief Commercial Officer Matthew McKnight said. “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.”

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, according to the Mills administration.

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. Additionally, the Mills administration said 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.

The Mills administration said 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.