Johnson County schools poised to get thousands of saliva tests to screen kids and teachers for COVID-19

Johnson County schools are set to increase their testing capacity by thousands, using a new spit-based test. File photo.

As public schools across Johnson County plan to reopen in some form or another next week, they appear poised to dramatically increase their capacity to test students, teachers and staff for COVID-19.

During a virtual town hall hosted by the Shawnee Mission School District Wednesday morning, Johnson County health director Sanmi Areola, Ph.D., said his department was using funds recently allocated by the county commission to buy thousands of saliva-based tests to be used “exclusively” in schools in coming weeks to better contain the spread of COVID-19.

Areola said the tests could be rolled out to schools as soon as next week, when some elementary students will return to in-person learning in the Blue Valley, Olathe and USD 232 districts. All students in Shawnee Mission are set to start the school year learning remotely, beginning Tuesday, Sept. 8.

The increased testing capacity in schools, Areola said, will be key to stopping community spread of COVID-19 in Johnson County heading into the fall.

“This will allow us to test thousands of students, teachers and staff,” he said during the town hall, which was streamed live by Shawnee Mission Schools on YouTube. “We will be able to test in cohorts — in elementary classrooms, with groups of kids in extracurricular activities.”

a ‘game changer’

The news of the tests coming to schools seemed to take Shawnee Mission Superintendent Mike Fulton off-guard. He called it a “game changer” that would potentially allow his district to bring more students back to in-person learning and activities more quickly.

“Without a robust testing strategy, it will be extraordinarily difficult for us to be able to make decisions we need to make in order to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Fulton said.

Areola noted that details of how the tests would be deployed and where they would be used were still being worked out.

Last week, the Board of County Commissioners voted to approve $200,000 to buy the saliva tests from Lenexa-based Clinical Reference Laboratory. In July, the lab received emergency-use authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration for the saliva test, which is easier to administer than the more common nasal swab test.

But the saliva test still uses the same methodology as the nasal swab test to pinpoint a potential case of COVID-19, by identifying nucleic acids from SARS-CoV-2 present in the respiratory tract of an individual.

Health director’s message to parents

Johnson County is still logging more than 110 new cases of COVID-19 per day and has been tracking more than 800 new infections per week over the past month-and-a-half, Areola said Wednesday. He expressed concern that new cases could spike in about two weeks, following this coming weekend’s Labor Day holiday.

He encouraged families and students in Johnson County to avoid large gatherings and parties for the long holiday weekend, behavior he said happened earlier this summer for Memorial Day and for some graduation parties, contributing to the ongoing spread of the coronavirus.

“Parents who are demanding that schools reopen, that tell me athletics need to start,” he said, “this is a chance for you to help contain community spread.”