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Rapid antigen testing vs. Molecular testing: Which is best for our public schools?

Published: Dec. 9, 2020 at 6:07 PM CST
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - The Texas Medical Association is now recommending that schools across the state use rapid antigen testing to detect possible Coronavirus outbreaks before they become a problem.

Rapid antigen testing produces results in just minutes and physicians argue that the widespread use of those tests will detect COVID-19 earlier than ever, creating a safer learning environment.

Christine Blackburn, the Deputy Director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at the Texas A&M Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs was on First News at Four on Wednesday.

New COVID-19 cases in Texas public schools were on the rise since the return to classrooms, but now they are on a significant decline. Blackburn says it may be too soon to tell what the drop really means. She says it could be a drop in new cases or possibly a lack of testing over the Thanksgiving holiday.

“We have to see over the next week or two if it becomes a trend,” Blackburn says.

Blackburn says rapid antigen testing is most effective for large-scale testing compared to molecular testing which is more accurate but takes longer to get results.

“Antigen testing has a good accuracy level, though it is not perfect,” Blackburn continues, “if you have a negative test, it doesn’t always mean the person is negative. There can be false negatives and false positives. But it does allow you to do larger testing and more frequent testing.”

Rapid antigen testing can give results in as little as 15 minutes, whereas molecular testing can take 48 hours or more.

“While [rapid antigen testing is] not perfect, it will give you a better picture of what’s happening in the schools and hopefully allow you to contain an outbreak much more quickly than using molecular testing,” Blackburn says.

Blackburn says the decision to send kids to school really depends on the size of the outbreak in the community, the size of the school, the precautions the school has put into place, and how strictly the school is following them.

“All of those combined are going to determine whether it’s safe to send children to school,” she explains.

With rapid antigen testing, Blackburn speculates that testing all students in a given school could be accomplished weekly. But the extended wait for molecular testing and the additional steps involved would make it impossible to do so with molecular testing.

However, she notes that weekly rapid antigen testing would be dependent on schools having all the necessary resources. Blackburn says resources vary from district to district and it would be impossible to know how many schools would be prepared to conduct weekly individual testing.

To see the full interview with Christine Blackburn, click on the video player above.

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