How Atlas Genomics Supported the Tahoma School District’s COVID-19 Testing Program and How Other Clinical Laboratories Can Follow Suit
July 27, 2022
The Seattle laboratory’s partnership with LigoLab Information Systems and the TestDirectly Direct-to-Consumer Portal allowed the Tahoma School District to quickly implement a comprehensive and school-friendly COVID-19 testing program.
March 11, 2020, marks the beginning of an era that will remain imprinted on the world’s psyche for generations to come. It was the day that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak to be a global pandemic. Shortly afterward, people from all nations and all walks of life became witnesses to the destructive toll tiny, fast-spreading viruses like SARS-CoV-2 can have on public health and the global economy. Millions of lives have been lost globally, countless businesses have been shuttered, and more than two years later, much of the world is still living with COVID-19 and its destructive shadow.
For educators in the United States, the pandemic prompted nationwide school closures and a sudden transition to virtual learning for all K-12 schools. By the fall of 2020, some schools were able to offer in-person or “hybrid” learning opportunities. However, facing a return of the virus in the form of the Delta variant in late 2020-early 2021, education experts feared that learning loss would become a big issue if K-12 students continued to learn in remote settings. A May 2020 study published by Brown University put weight behind these fears as it hypothesized that virtual learners would likely return to school in the fall of 2020 with “63-68 percent of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year, and 37-50 percent of the learning gains in math.”
Making the Case for School Screening and Diagnostic Testing
U.S. educators were eager to find a way forward and to return students to the classroom in the safest, least disruptive way possible. For public health officials, diagnostic laboratories like Seattle-based Atlas Genomics would play a key role in doing so. In early 2021, the high-complexity molecular diagnostics laboratory was called on by the Washington State Department of Health and school districts within the state of Washington to administer COVID-19 screening and diagnostic testing as part of the Learn to Return program, an initiative that included over 500 school partners throughout the state that teamed up with the DOH to implement school-based COVID testing to maximize in-person learning.
Public health and government officials rightfully believed that COVID-19 testing would play a vital role in the statewide effort to get kids safely back into the classroom. They also knew that for it to work, laboratory partners with a track record of success were needed.
Enter Atlas Genomics, which had already piloted its own school testing program in the spring of 2021. For the pilot, Atlas partnered with a school district made up of 30 schools, with approximately 25,000 students, to oversee a pooled testing program.
Pooled testing is a method where COVID-19 specimens are placed in pooled samples that include as many as 25 individual swabs per specimen tube. After sample collection, the tubes were sent to the lab for analysis, and the results were automatically reported to all stakeholders.
The pilot program helped set the stage for the lab’s later work with other Washington schools, including the Tahoma School District.
The Tahoma School District and Atlas Genomics Partnership
The Washington State DOH conducted a rigorous vetting process to select COVID-19 testing vendors to support the Learn to Return initiative and put the voluntary testing program in action. The program called for schools to use a modified quarantine for unvaccinated students who were identified as being in “close contact” with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. Students with consent for COVID-19 testing were then allowed to remain in school if they tested negative twice within a set protocol.
Thanks to the success of its pilot program, Atlas Genomics became a vendor of choice for the program, offering local in-state testing solutions and support for school districts to partner with for the new school year.
Tahoma School District, located in Maple Valley, Washington, and serving approximately 8,600 students in grades pre-K-12, needed such a partner to halt a growing crisis as a new variant ignited a third outbreak of COVID-19 in the fall of 2021.
“By the end of summer, it looked like the pandemic was subsiding and that we were in for an easy transition back to in-person learning,” recalled Tahoma School District’s COVID Supervisor Kyle Hood. “But then the new variant hit and things progressed quickly. That’s when state and local health jurisdictions started rolling out school screening measures.”
How the School Screening and Diagnostic Testing Program Worked
Screening and diagnostic testing is a public health measure that helps officials identify infectious diseases by testing a designated population at a specific time and place. For Tahoma School District, this method allowed its educators to get a daily snapshot of the entire student population and quickly act to prevent potential virus outbreaks.
“Our screening and diagnostic testing program provided free COVID-19 tests at school sites to students whose parent or guardian opted them into the program by submitting consent,” said Hood. “Routine testing provided the community with an accurate representation of the prevalence of COVID-19 and helped our schools to remain open and safe.”
As part of the program, parents, and guardians were able to choose whether or not their children were tested. In addition, the identities of the tested individuals were kept confidential. Only the school district had an administrative record of which students tested positive and when. Those unvaccinated individuals that came into close contact with a person that tested positive could choose to either quarantine for 10 days or test to stay in the classroom.
Effective Testing Saved Thousands of Educational Hours
“If students that came into close contact with someone that tested positive for COVID-19 didn’t have symptoms and remained negative, they didn’t have to quarantine,” added Hood, who noted that the program saved thousands of educational hours that may have otherwise been lost. “The students were allowed to stay on campus as long as they tested negative two times within seven days.”
Hood also explained that students who had COVID-19 previously, or who were vaccinated and were asymptomatic were not required to quarantine after close contact with the virus.
TestDirectly Made Testing at Scale a Reality
One of the biggest challenges that Tahoma School District faced was the speed and scale at which the new variant was spreading.
“In December of 2021, we saw a total of 356 positive cases in our district, including staff and students,” said Mikki Roessler, the district’s COVID Coordinator. “By January of 2022, we were up to 981 positive cases, with roughly 2,200 close contacts.”
To help manage this volume, Atlas and Tahoma teamed up with TestDirectly to streamline its collection, testing, and reporting processes. With this partnership, the benefits were evident in a short period. The lab processed and reported a weekly average of about a thousand specimen samples with a turnaround time of no more than 24 hours for test results, with turnaround time defined as the time between the specimen first arriving at the lab, and the lab reporting a test result to stakeholders.
TestDirectly is a vendor-neutral direct-to-consumer web portal developed by LigoLab Information Systems for specialty testing services like the Learn to Return program. The portal effectively eliminates the potential for errors and the accessioning bottleneck while also removing other workflow barriers that would otherwise prevent a lab like Atlas from scaling its operations to serve its community better. The portal can integrate with any laboratory information system (LIS), and training, implementation, and go-live can all be accomplished in one to two weeks.
To date, laboratories and collection centers throughout the U.S. have leveraged the power behind TestDirectly to efficiently collect, process, and report over 20 million COVID-19 cases while supporting various school/university, employer, and organizational testing programs.
The Power of Partnership
The Atlas Genomics partnership with TestDirectly dates back to the fall of 2020, and according to Casey Marvin, the lab’s Program Manager for Washington State Schools, the partnership has been a great fit for the lab and its clients.
“We’ve been able to dramatically increase the productivity of all our school testing programs with TestDirectly,” said Marvin, whose school customers numbered in the hundreds for the 2021-2022 school year. “The number of specimens we can handle, and our turnaround times, have contributed to keeping Washington students safe and in school.”
Marvin said he continues to hear positive feedback from school administrators that enrolled in the school testing program, especially in terms of onboarding and efficiency. He also said the support team behind the TestDirectly software solution is second to none.
“The team at TestDirectly provided phenomenal customer service and training,” added Marvin. “They were extremely responsive, especially during the Omicron surge.”
For Marvin, the partnership was built on communication and follow-through.
“When something needed to happen, it happened quickly and positively,” he said.
Parent and Guardian Buy-In Ultimately Made the Program a Success
There was another big benefit that came from getting students back into a safe and productive learning environment…parents for the first time in a long time didn’t have to worry as much about disruption and what to do with their children and their work schedules as a result of a school closure.
“Once they became familiar with the Learn to Return program, the district’s parents and guardians responded very positively,” said Marvin. “We knew that for this to work, we needed to provide personal care. The community was scared. We needed to do everything we could to reassure them that this partnership would keep their kids safe at school.”
Marvin, himself a parent, said that once the adults learned how easy it was to use TestDirectly and opt into the program, they adopted it quickly.
During the early stages of the Omicron outbreak, the Tahoma School district set up a COVID-19 Response Team, phone line, and an email address that parents could utilize for questions, concerns, or problems. TestDirectly was the engine that helped parents schedule test appointment times, and it efficiently tied Atlas Genomics with the district’s COVID Response Team for test processing and reporting. The district team then reported test results directly back to parents/guardians soon after they were available.
Organizational Testing Made Easy with TestDirectly
TestDirectly is an all-in-one testing solution that replaces paper forms and manual processes with an electronic workflow that significantly reduces the potential for reporting errors. Just as important, the portal enables labs to increase their volumes and support organizational testing programs without sacrificing turnaround times.
The TestDirectly portal includes access control functionality, which in the case of school testing allows administrators to see results by facility, by staff, by students, or any other attribute. Additionally, the platform automatically delivers test results to stakeholders like parents and guardians, school administrators, and public health agencies.
“The platform covers all aspects of direct-to-consumer and organizational specimen collection, testing, and reporting,” said Adam Carlin, TestDirectly’s Director of Implementation and Support. “TestDirectly keeps schools safe and students in class, and it fully supports laboratories at every stage.”
TestDirectly is an easy-to-use direct-to-consumer portal that provides turn-key point-of-care testing solutions and connects laboratories and collection centers with patients, physicians, schools, employers, organizations, and government agencies. TestDirectly eliminates bottlenecks with automation that supports the collection and processing of specimens, the creation and delivery of reports, and the management of both payment and compliance, all while also delivering a better patient experience.