DENVER – Colorado will start offering free, voluntary testing to all K-12 schools across the state to avoid disruptions to in-person learning as pediatric cases of the novel coronavirus continue to increase due to the highly transmissible delta variant.
During a virtual news conference late Tuesday morning, Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, said Colorado was seeing a “pretty rapid rise” in pediatric case rates, particularly among kids aged 6-17, as well as a “clear increase” in hospitalizations among children overall, though those numbers remain small when compared to the overwhelming number of hospitalizations among the adult population.
Data released by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) Tuesday showed 17 out of the state’s 1.26 million kids are hospitalized with COVID-19, with ten of those hospitalizations being among children 11 years of age or younger.
Unfortunately, Herlihy said, pediatric hospitalizations from severe illness are not just going to be from COVID-19 this year, as the state is seeing an earlier than usual rise in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and expects to see cases of the flu among children increase as we head into the winter months.
“I think, at this point in the pandemic, our children that are unvaccinated really are at higher risk than they've ever been,” Herlihy said, adding that bringing unvaccinated children to large gatherings would not be ideal at this time.
Continued mask wearing in and outside of the classroom remain important, Herlihy said, as do other mitigation strategies like hand-washing, social distancing and testing, which the state is offering free to all K-12 schools.
The goal of the new program, spearheaded by Sarah Hamma, the branch chief of the CDPHE’s COVID Community Testing and Vendor Partnerships division, will be to decrease spread within Colorado schools by identifying symptomatic and asymptomatic cases and minimize disruptions to in-person learning caused by transmission of the virus.
It will utilize weekly rapid antigen testing to proactively monitor COVID-19 cases and better prevent exposures and outbreaks across schools, and will be available to all students and staff regardless of vaccination status or presence of symptoms, Hamma said.
The program will allow school districts to test students and staff by either partnering with a state contractor to provide all services from registration to reporting, or by giving schools everything they need to conduct testing and reporting themselves.
Hamma said the program will need to be approved by the superintendent of each school district or non-CSI charter schools and require parental consent before it is implemented on a weekly basis beginning on Sept. 7 and lasting for the duration of the school year.
Currently, 447 individual schools from 22 school districts in Colorado have joined the program which is made possible thanks to $173 million in federal dollars that were allocated to Colorado with the specific intent to implement testing for K-12 schools, Hamma said.
During a news conference Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis announced new incentives for students who participate in this program.
All students in participating schools whose parents have opted into the school testing program will be eligible to receive gift cards of $25 for the first test and $10 for each subsequent test, and any school that participates in the program will receive $2.50 per test administered and reported to CDPHE as a reimbursement for the testing administrative costs, said Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Governor Polis.
Despite the increase in pediatric cases, the state is still doing well when it comes to hospital capacity, according to CDPHE's COVID-19 Incident Commander Scott Bookman.
As of Monday, the state reported 80% of ICU beds were in use by patients across the state, Bookman said. More than 900 pediatric beds are still available and more than 60% of ventilators in Colorado are not being utilized at this time.
The data released Tuesday by the CDPHE is in line with what the rest of the country is seeing in terms of pediatric COVID-19 cases.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reported 204,000 new cases among children for the week ending Aug. 26, marking the second week with child cases at the level of the winter surge and a five-fold increase over the past month.
Nationally, less than 2% of all COVID-19 cases in children result in hospitalization, according to the AAP.