With this year's emphasis on getting vaccinated against COVID-19, some may think that continued testing for the virus is not as critical. Some parents, for example, believe that regularly testing their school-age children for the virus is excessive.
But testing — especially for younger people — remains an essential element of beating the virus and protecting more people against infection and death. That's why more Minnesota schools should heed the state's advice to regularly test middle and high school students.
Here's why: According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) the state is experiencing high circulation of COVID-19 variants that spread more easily. In particular, health officials report that there have been increasing numbers of cases concentrated among older students, aged 12-18 — an age group that is seeing higher infection and lower vaccination rates.
Consequently, health and other state leaders are rightly strongly encouraging all Minnesota schools to make testing more accessible to students.
Minnesota is fortunate to be among several states that are providing testing kits and other testing resources to schools for free. Since MDH began offering the saliva kits last month, at least 178 schools or districts have requested them. Twenty clubs representing six sports have asked for 1,013 kits as well. And even more should get them to help slow the spread of the virus.
There are hurdles ahead. Some parents and others object to the testing, arguing that they can result in false positives. They also are concerned that frequent testing identifies more mild or asymptomatic infections that can lead to quarantines and a return to distance learning. School nurses reported that some varsity teams that didn't want positive results to upset their seasons have made no-testing pledges this year.
That's shortsighted and dangerous. Not wanting to know if there are infections to save a season or spend more days in class won't help beat the virus. COVID-19 is highly infectious, and the benefits of testing far outweigh any inconveniences.
State health officials say that risks of serious illness remain low in young people, but they can spread the virus to both adults and other children.
According to state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann, the overall rate of false positives appears lower than 1%. That's clearly an acceptable trade-off when the goal is to quickly identify infections and slow outbreaks.
"With the high level of viral transmission that we're seeing right now, we feel good about this particular test," Ehresmann told the Star Tribune. "I think that given the consequences that we can see from COVID — that we have seen this whole last year with hospitalizations and deaths — we want to make sure that we're being cautious."
Minnesota's strong response to getting adults tested for COVID certainly contributed to progress the state has made toward returning to normal. Continuing testing among young people, combined with greater opportunities to get them shots, will bring the state closer to reaching its goal of at least 70% of Minnesotans vaccinated by July 1.