Do you want your school-age child on the couch or in the classroom? Don’t we all dread that call from the school nurse:
“We’re sorry, but your child has been in close contact with a student who tested positive for COVID and will have to quarantine at home now.”
Oh, no, missed work, emergency child care, grandparents, and, ugh, remote “learning.”
If you live in Millville, you may no longer have to get that call. In a few schools, with many more to come, students who ar
By taking a rapid COVID test right away, then two subsequent ones, your child can remain in school without quarantining.
But isn’t getting a test like finding a hen’s tooth right now? No, it isn’t.
Well, then, where can I get one? At either of two community testing pods right here in Millville.
Everybody and his uncle is trying to get tested: Won’t the lines be long? No, Millville students have “front of the line privileges.”
But how is all this happening?
It’s happening through a masterful partnership between a colorfully named COVID mitigation and control company and an innovative Millville public school system.
Dr. Rick Pescatore from Vineland is chief medical officer and a co-founder of the startup named Grapefruit Health.
“South Jersey gets short shrift with so many things,” he said. “We wanted to bring our innovative service right here as a way to serve and benefit our own communities. (Millville Schools superintendent) Tony Trongone was ready to go on it and the Cumberland County Health Department was stellar in its support.”
Grapefruit Health’s formal Test to Stay (TTS) protocol began in Millville on January 1. Participation is voluntary with parental consent. Parents can choose to have a child quarantined rather than tested. Fully vaccinated students are not eligible for TTS, since they aren’t required to quarantine. Students with symptoms can’t participate until their symptoms subside or their quarantine period ends, whichever comes first.
The program means students can have the advantages of in-person instruction, being with friends, participating in the activities they like, and having access to meals. When a family is notified of a positive result, they can plan for treatment and protect the rest of the family from exposure. Staff members who aren’t fully vaccinated can also use the protocols.
Testing to remain in school in Millville is being used initially at the Child Family Center and Bacon Elementary, with expansion to other schools soon.
”We’re in our third school year where children have been dealing with restrictions because of the pandemic,” said Trongone. “We continue to work to rectify the damage that has been done by remote learning. We established preventative measures without sacrificing safety for our students and staff.”
Through TTS and contact tracing, Millville is trying to avoid things like sending a student home for just a cough or quarantining a whole class because of a single positive COVID test.
At this point, more than 300 schools from California to Florida have partnered with Grapefruit Health. When the New Jersey Department of Health finally authorized the model in the state, Millville jumped on it along with several other progressive districts like Lakewood, which was first, and Washington Township, which began TTS on Monday.
“We are striving to affect the landscape of the pandemic with all of our mitigation strategies, not simply testing,” said Christina Andrianopoulos, vice president of communications and business operations for Grapefruit. “We have a very effective model that accommodates any school and what they need.”
Dr. Pescatore and another co-founder, Dr. Joe Cesarine, are good friends with experience as frontline emergency physicians. (See box at right).
Grapefruit’s services aren’t limited to serving schools. In addition to its two community testing pods in Millville (with one more to come), it has 15 other community testing locations across the country with 10 more starting up over the next few weeks.
These pods offer telemedicine screening, rapid antigen and PCR testing, and medical follow-up if a client is positive. The service is free and no appointment is needed.
Additional area locations are the Marino Center in Bridgeton, Atlantic Cape Community College, and the Mays Landing branch of the Atlantic County Library.
Service to schools is Grapefruit’s primary focus right now, though, especially because TTS, which, strangely, was resisted at first by New Jersey leaders, is now becoming common. It is endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Grapefruit has administered more than 250,000 tests counting all locations since October 1.
In Millville, separate from TTS, Grapefruit also gives on-site weekly tests to faculty and staff, both those who are legally required to be tested because they are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated and those who choose to test just for peace of mind.
In fact, staff testing at school, at the community pods, and at home has helped discern that cases have reached the point where Millville currently has a staff shortage due to the continuing spread of the omicron variant and exacerbated by a lack of substitute teachers.
Because of this, students attending Lakeside Middle School, Memorial High School, and Millville Senior High School began early dismissals on Monday and will remain on that schedule until February 25. (See news story on page 5.)
Students in the TTS protocol are tested on the first, third, and fifth days after they are identified as a close contact. As long as they stay negative or don’t develop symptoms, they stay in school. Results are generally available in 15 minutes or less, but sometimes take longer.
TTS is used solely for in-school infections and exposures. It is not available for exposures that occur outside of the school day or in the community, such as during an extracurricular or social activity or in the household.
Grapefruit’s responsibilities to school districts extend beyond testing. Its contact tracing, exposure notification, and compliance oversight help reduce the burden on the local health departments and school nurses.
“It’s hard for school leaders to know what to do in this environment of constantly changing circumstances and regulations,” said Dr. Pescatore, “Without dependable information they often err on the side of caution, leading to broad closings.”
He and his team are there to help find better solutions.
We know readers want to learn one more thing, right? Where did “Grapefruit” come from?
Drs. Pescatore and Cesarine were drinking grapefruit seltzer, brainstorming about the company.
-What about Grapefruit as a name?
-Yeah, I like Grapefruit.
-Let’s use that, then.
And they did.
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Does Testing for COVID in School Help?
There is an extensive body of research on the effectiveness of Test to Stay programs. New evidence from Mathematica and RAND Corporation supported by the Rockefeller Foundation shows that regular Covid testing in primary and secondary education is critical to getting students back to in-person learning.
Mathematica found that weekly testing of all students, teachers, and staff could reduce in-school infections by 50 percent.
The philosophy of this is how we can keep healthy kids in school and sick kids at home.
Schools across the country are using high frequency, low barrier testing to quickly indentify infected individuals and stop the virus in its tracks.
Test to Stay™ is a pending trademark of Grapefruit Testing, LLC
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Does Testing for COVID in School Help?
Dr. Rick Pescatore is an emergency medicine physician and public health leader. He has spearheaded testing efforts at large institutions and small community school districts. He has been featured on nationwide media outlets for his insight on the Covid crisis.
Dr. Joseph Cesarine, chief product officer and medical director attained degrees from New York University and Thomas Jefferson’s Sidney Kimmel School of Medicine He trained in emergency medicine at Cooper Hospital, alongside Dr. Pescatore, and is an attending physician with Virtua Health.
Grapefruit Health CEO Chris Gaeta is a first responder, Covid researcher, and specialist in health care startups. Business Insider named him as a top Gen Z Venture Capitalist.
Since April 2020, he has worked with the FDA and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania to identify potential drugs to repurpose for the treatment of Covid.