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"Pool Testing" Pilot Could Make Some Memphis Classrooms Safer

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While students in the Shelby County Schools district will be learning online for at least the start of this semester, other schools in Memphis are returning to in-person classes.

Starting next week, a few of those schools will be trying out a COVID-19 testing program designed to identify potential outbreaks before they can spread. 

The City of Memphis is using federal CARES Act money to fund this pilot program at three schools initially, though the city has not announced the names of those participating. 

The program is built around a method known as pool testing. In this case, it starts by swabbing everyone in a school for COVID, then the specimens are combined—or pooled—into smaller groups. If a batch comes back positive, then the lab re-runs a test for each individual sample in the group to pinpoint the infected person or persons. 

If a pool is negative, it saves time and money by reducing the total number of tests needed. 

It works best in populations that are expected to have limited positive cases.  

Dr. Manoj Jain, a local infectious disease expert, says this kind of testing could help health and school officials to quickly identify someone in a school who might unknowingly have the virus because they don’t show any symptoms. 

“We will pick up an outbreak, and we want to do that before we have 50 kids that are positive,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be great if we just find the three or five [positive kids] a week earlier...and we take them and put them in isolation?” 

Students at the pilot schools will get their first COVID tests before the first day of class, and then be routinely tested after that. 

Tiffany Collins, with the city of Memphis, says although it would be ideal to test students every day, there are practical limitations.  

“For the sake of not to disrupt the classroom, looking at the lab resources, looking at the staffing level, we figure to test them at least every eight business days, which gives us an opportunity to test at least three times a month,” she says. 

The city says it can eventually test 4,000 people per day under the program.