Wake County Schools

Wake schools will use 'pool testing' to quickly, cheaply identify coronavirus outbreaks

Posted November 30, 2021 6:37 p.m. EST
Updated November 30, 2021 8:05 p.m. EST

— Eleven Wake County public schools on Monday began weekly testing of students for coronavirus in an effort to limit the spread of the virus, and the district plans to expand the testing program to all of its schools by next year.

Students won't be tested without their parents' permission, but officials are encouraging people to register for the free tests to "safeguard the wellbeing of the entire school community."

Raleigh-based Mako Medical is handling the tests, part of the company's growing list of school clients nationwide. Mako is testing students and staff at more than 700 schools in North Carolina, as well as schools in South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Ohio, Colorado, Kentucky, Maryland and Louisiana.

The company's lab in Henderson has grown from 30 employees before the pandemic to more than 500 now, and it tests about 30,000 samples a day, with enough capacity to push that total to 150,000 a day.

"It’s been a pretty dramatic increase," director of genomics Matthew Tugwell said Tuesday. "Knowledge is power in this situation, and knowing who’s a potential spreader or carrier of the disease is the first step in doing something about it."

Mako's goal is to identify infections within 24 hours, and Tugwell said test results can be obtained in as few as four hours.

“We have it pretty much down to a science now," he said.

The company uses "pool testing" to speed the process, combining 10 samples for a test. The individuals involved in each pool need individual retests only if the initial test comes back positive.

Pooling the tests is faster because a majority of tests return negative, and it's cheaper because 10 samples can be tested for $15 instead $15 for each individual test, Tugwell said.

“As we’ve done more and more of the testing, we are starting to see an increase in the number of positives," he said.

Mako has strike teams that go into schools to collect samples. This week, teams are visiting Ligon Middle School and Baileywick Road Elementary, Briarcliff Elementary, Carver Elementary, East Garner Elementary, Hortons Creek Elementary, Mills Park Elementary, North Forest Pines Elementary, Oakview Elementary, Sanford Creek Elementary and White Oak Elementary schools for the first time.

Coronavirus infections in the Wake County Public School System are down 68 percent in the last two months, from more than 1,800 in September to 854 in October and just 585 in November. Students account for 90 percent of the total.

Even with multiple machines, Tugwell said a Mako employee analyzes every positive test.

"They understand that each one of these tubes is a person that is depending on getting that result," he said.

Our commenting policy has changed. If you would like to comment, please share on social media using the icons below and comment there.