New Mexico is sending free COVID-19 home tests to low-income and underserved neighborhoods, but some school officials say a nationwide shortage of kits is putting them in a bind as they work to meet state requirements aimed at keeping students and staff in the classroom.
The state Health Department announced this week that more than 400,000 tests have been secured so far.
“I have directed the Department of Health to procure 1 million rapid tests every two weeks to ensure that every New Mexican has access to this critical tool in our fight against COVID-19,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement.
The governor and state health officials have said that more widespread testing can help manage the pandemic as the more contagious omicron variant makes its way through the population. Testing also is key to the state’s “Test to Stay” program, which allows unvaccinated and partially vaccinated students exposed to COVID-19 to stay at school as long as they test negative.
New Mexico Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said at a virtual briefing Wednesday that the state is talking about testing requirements for schools and whether changes are in order.
“It is very resource-intensive. That is something that we’re trying to figure out right now and see what we can do,” he said.
Many districts around the U.S. already have changed their protocols and, in some cases, are doing away with contact tracing and shifting the focus to symptomatic students.
In Massachusetts, officials announced Tuesday that millions of rapid test kits would be made available to schools so staff and students could test themselves weekly at home.
Data from that state’s test-and-stay program found that transmission to close contacts was rare, prompting the recommendation to instead do weekly at-home rapid tests, along with regular pooled testing or symptomatic testing.
The Santa Fe Public School District was forced to go remote this week, citing a spike in cases, a staffing shortage and a lack of tests.
“Our state provider cannot currently meet the demand for surveillance testing for staff and Test to Stay for students,” the district said. “Many parents have opted for their children to participate in Test to Stay, but the state’s provider has been unable to consistently provide testing.”
The district also noted that schools faced a Jan. 17 deadline to ensure that all staff were vaccinated or were participating in testing.
“We cannot meet this testing mandate if the state cannot provide the tests, which places us in further jeopardy in our schools and school sites,” the district said.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest district, officials did not respond to questions about the availability of tests, but did announce extra precautions due to the rising number of cases. They include mandating masks indoors and outside, prohibiting spectators at school events, and not holding assemblies or other large gatherings.
New Mexico health officials said Wednesday they are working with county emergency managers around the state to formulate plans to distribute tests and masks over the coming weeks. They said people without symptoms will be encouraged to test at home, while those who are sick can expect to take PRC tests.
Scrase said the state will release more information about testing in the coming weeks, but noted that home testing “is going to be a game changer.”