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Rapid COVID testing being piloted in area schools

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FITCHBURG (WKOW) -- Rapid COVID-19 antigen tests give results in 15 minutes, and researchers at UW-Madison are trying to make them more widely available by helping to set up testing centers in schools.

Right now, pilot programs are set up at two local schools -- One City Schools in Madison and EAGLE School in Fitchburg.

"The tests are out there, so how can we get them out?" said EAGLE School Director Andy Wright. "We have the ability to do this, so let's do it."

In a letter to families Sunday night, Wright announced that the school would begin conducting COVID-19 antigen tests at the school.

The school nurse prepares the test in a well ventilated science classroom, then walks it out to a patient waiting outside. The patient swabs their nose, then returns the test -- which the nurse then finishes inside.

After 15 minutes, there's a diagnostic result.

Wright says the testing will be available at the school for students and their family members who have COVID-like symptoms.

"I think we've all been in a situation where somebody has a cold, not feeling well, and you think, 'Oh my gosh. I need to be tested,'" Wright said. "But it's a Saturday night, and the next time the Alliant Energy Center is open is Tuesday afternoon."

Dave and Shelby O'Connor have a child at EAGLE School, but they're also both pathology and laboratory medicine professors at UW-Madison -- and they helped get the school set up with the same tests used at the university.

"We received an allocation of 5,000 of these tests to try to improve the testing within K-12 schools locally," Dave O'Connor explained.

Right now, it's just a pilot program at the two schools as more tests are made. Anyone who gets a positive result should still follow up with their doctor for best treatment options.

But conducting the tests is incredibly easy and fast, and the O'Connors are hoping other schools take notice and begin the regulatory process to start conducting tests themselves soon.

"What you saw here was the school nurse preforming the test today," Shelby O'Connor said. "I think a lot of school nurses could perform this type of test."

Conducting testing in an environment like a school helps to decentralize testing, which Dave O'Connor compared to voting -- where you have locations spread out in individual communities so people don't have to go as far.

"If we can get people tested while they have symptoms, identify within 15 minutes that they're positive, we can then act on that really quickly," he explained. "Have people isolate, have people take precautions to protect others in their households from becoming infected."

If districts get prepared now, there could be enough tests available soon for regular testing in K-12 schools -- similar to how testing works at UW.

"This sort of frequent testing can be used as one of many layers in a school protection strategy that will hopefully allow kids to return to something resembling more normal school -- if not at the start of spring semester, later in 2021," O'Connor said.

Wright said EAGLE School has been virtual since March. He also views this in-house testing as one tool in the toolbox toward reopening completely sometime in 2021.

"If we have a student who is sick, we can test right away," he said. "And that sense of control is so helpful during these times."

Andrew Merica

Reporter/Producer, 27 News

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