Washington is expanding COVID-19 testing resources for school districts around the state, Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday.
In a news conference, the governor also said the federal government is once again increasing the weekly allocations of COVID-19 doses Washington will receive, though the exact figure isn’t yet known.
In an effort to get more K-12 students back to in-person learning, an additional 48 K-12 school districts have signed up for a voluntary program to boost testing, Inslee said.
“And we hope these numbers will grow,” he said.
Thirteen Washington school districts are currently piloting the coronavirus testing on school grounds. The 48 districts will begin similar testing programs this month.
It’s up to districts to decide how to roll out the testing programs, and who is eligible to receive tests. In one district using the pilot program, that has meant roughly two-thirds of teachers and staffers voluntarily getting tested each week.
The districts now being added include Renton Schools and Vashon Island in King County, as well as Monroe School District and Lakewood School District #306 in Snohomish County, according to a list provided by the governor’s office. It also includes Olympia School District.
“It’s a way to help build confidence,” Inslee said, noting that testing is not necessary to reopen schools but offers another safety layer for schools that are already required to implement a host of other measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing.
The Institute for Disease Modeling has released modeling data that suggests testing doesn’t offer any added benefit when schools are following those safety protocols with fidelity.
On that front, Inslee said the state is also helping schools develop “a playbook” in how to reopen with health and safety guidance. That includes “universal masking” and guidelines for social-distancing and proper ventilation.
“Now we have been armed with something very powerful, and that is knowledge and experience that we did not have a year ago,” the governor said.
He also said someone suggested Tuesday that the state post virus infection data by school district on a data dashboard, such as with the state Department of Health. This would mark a massive change from the way school-related cases are currently reported; some school districts post data publicly, but many do not.
“We are happy to do that, moving in that direction,” said Inslee. “We have to check some federal law first, but we hope to provide that as well.”
Inslee said that Washington’s school reopening guidance largely fits with new guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week.
That federal guidance suggests that schools can reopen safely and before all teachers are vaccinated as long as they follow a list of safety requirements — a point that Inslee reiterated Tuesday.
Washington’s coronavirus vaccine rollout puts older teachers and school staff in line for vaccination this month. School employees under age 50 are expected to be eligible later this spring.
Republican lawmakers have called on Inslee to find a way to get schools open more quickly. GOP senators — along with at least one Democrat — sponsored a bill that would require schools to bring back in-person learning in certain circumstances. But that proposal, SB 5037, has not advanced in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Inslee Tuesday also said the Biden administration is increasing the weekly allotment of COVID-19 vaccine doses to 13.5 million, up from 11 million.
While Washington hasn’t yet been given specific numbers on its portion, “that is a significant increase,” said the governor.
The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 579 new coronavirus cases and 34 new deaths on Tuesday.
The update brings the state’s totals to 329,746 cases and 4,709 deaths, meaning that 1.4% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Monday.
The federal government is also doubling the number of doses going to pharmacies around the nation, he said, to 2 million.
The winter storms sweeping the nation have delayed some vaccine shipments coming into Washington, said Lacy Fehrenbach, an assistant secretary with the state Department of Health.
Some vaccine clinics scheduled for this week were likely rescheduled for a later date, said Fehrenbach.