COLUMBIA — Students and teachers can get a rapid-result COVID-19 test at public schools across South Carolina under an order signed Wednesday by Gov. Henry McMaster, with deliveries starting next week.
But how quickly they'll be available at individual schools, if at all, will vary across the state.
The executive order, which McMaster announced last week was coming, provides the authority needed for school nurses to use nasal swab test kits to quickly discern whether a cough, sneeze or other symptoms are COVID-19.
It allows guidelines from the state's public health agency to function like a standing prescription from a doctor, with the goal of keeping classrooms open and enabling more schools to provide a full week of in-person learning. The credit-card-sized tests, provided through the federal government, can determine in about 15 minutes whether the test-taker has COVID-19, requiring a two-week quarantine.
"Right now, too many South Carolina parents are having to choose between their jobs and their children because they aren’t being given an option to send their children to school for in-person instruction," McMaster said in releasing the order. "School districts throughout our state have shown that we can safely educate our children in the classroom, and these tests will give students, teachers, and faculty members another layer of defense against the COVID-19 virus."
The tests are optional not only for students — parents must sign a consent form — but also for school districts, which can decide to opt out.
More than 220,000 test kits are available for schools statewide, which the Department of Health and Environmental Control expects to distribute next week. Plans call for districts to receive enough to test roughly 10 percent of their student enrollment and staff.
How quickly kits become available at participating schools will depend on local officials figuring out the logistics, such as distribution of the parental consent forms and designating a testing location inside or outside the school, or both, depending on staffing.
Dr. Brannon Traxler, the state's public health director, suggested testing could occur in parking lots, similar to the drive-thru testing offered at sites nationwide, which usually involve the more invasive tests that require a swab all the way up both nostrils.
"You certainly don't want (parents) sending the child to school sick," she said at McMaster's announcement last Thursday.
But the test can be helpful in ruling out COVID-19, so the child can be in school, she said.
Students who start coughing or showing other COVID-like symptoms during the school day are sent home to either quarantine for two weeks, get a test proving it's not COVID-19 or get another diagnosis from a doctor.
In rural areas where health care and transportation can be a problem, that can leave parents with no option but to stay home with their child. It could also result in other children around the student being unnecessarily sent home. The hope is that a test can quickly clear that up.
"In the beginning, we had parents upset we were sending kids home when they were sure it was seasonal allergies," but that's protocol, said Dawn MacAdams, health coordinator for Richland Two and immediate past president of the state Association of School Nurses.
While the rapid-result tests, which don't require a lab, are less sensitive than the uncomfortable ones that can leave the test-taker waiting days for a result, they're highly accurate in detecting COVID-19 when someone has any of the disease's varying symptoms, from the sniffles to diarrhea. That's why the testing in schools is reserved for those with symptoms, Traxler said.
"In the cold and flu season, this will allow us to rule out COVID more easily," she said.
Under DHEC's guidelines, any student or employee exhibiting shortness of breath, cough, fever, or loss of taste and smell can be tested for any one of those symptoms. Those are the symptoms that are supposed to automatically keep a child home.
For a broader range of symptoms, they'll need to have at least two to qualify for the free test. Those include sore throat, congestion, nausea, headache, fatigue, or muscle aches.
The state expects to receive 1.55 million of the tests from the federal government by year's end. Whether public schools receive any more will depend on how many participate and how quickly they go through them, according to DHEC.
Otherwise, they're going to nursing homes, assisted living facilities and state prisons.
All Charleston County schools will be participating, a district spokeswoman said this week. Other districts were awaiting more information from the state before deciding.
More than 200,000 South Carolinians have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since it was first confirmed here in March, and more than 4,000 of them have died. How many have actually had it and recovered is unknown since many people never have symptoms or they're so mild, they discount them as an allergy or coming cold and can unwittingly spread it.
Young people, especially school-age children, rarely get seriously ill from the disease that preys on the elderly and those with underlying heath conditions. No one between ages 4 and 20 has died of the disease in South Carolina, while 70 percent of people who died are 70 and older, according to DHEC.