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State expands school COVID-19 testing program; Cowlitz County reports two more deaths
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State expands school COVID-19 testing program; Cowlitz County reports two more deaths

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Washington governor signs bill to help workers, businesses

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee wears a double mask as he speaks before signing the first bill to be signed into law during the 2021 legislative session, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. The measure increases the minimum weekly benefit for unemployed workers during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and prevents a dramatic increase in unemployment taxes paid by businesses. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The state is expanding a school COVID-19 testing pilot program to any district that wants to join, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday afternoon.

Earlier Tuesday, Cowlitz County reported two more deaths and 60 new COVID-19 cases over the long weekend.

The deaths were of a man in his 60s and a man in his 70s, both of whom had underlying conditions and had been hospitalized, according to the health department. Total, the county has recorded 4,072 cases and 47 COVID-19 deaths.

At Inslee’s Feb. 16 press conference, he said testing in schools could be used to “build confidence” as more students return to classrooms. He said he was pleased that new CDC guidance on school reopening “broadly aligns with what we’re suggesting in the state of Washington.”

Inslee said the DOH partnered with Health Commons to roll out a testing pilot program over the last year in 11 school districts as part of the “Learn to Return playbook.” It went well, and 48 more school districts are already signed up for the program to start this month.

Heath Commons Project Manager Sarah Sutton said at the conference that “since the beginning of the pandemic, Health Commons has been supporting the communities by designing and implementing robust testing programs.”

She said interested districts are assigned a Health Commons testing strategist to design a testing program tailored to the school community, because there is “no one correct way to do COVID testing in schools.”

Schools could test everyone, just staff, or use testing for contract tracing, whatever they decide is best.

Enumclaw School District was one of the districts in the pilot program, and Superintendent Shaun Carey said at the press conference that it helped get students back in school and gave everyone an additional layer of protection and confidence.

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“On-site testing has allow us to respond quickly in event of a positive case,” he said, and the district now has 80% of its students back in class.

Inslee said just like reopening decisions, testing decisions are flexible and up to each school district.

He said he expected that state and federal funding would be used to support the testing programs and that “finances would not be a problem here.”

“We have a sense of urgency to answer this paramount duty to our students,” he said, adding that he’s “thrilled” his three grandchildren are back to in-person learning in their public schools.

While vaccine rollout was slowed by winter storms, Inslee said there was good news on the vaccine front: about 2.5 million more doses will be shipped to states this week.

Inslee said a call from the White House this morning announced that there will be 13.5 million doses sent out this week, and Washington typically gets about 2% of extra doses, though that number is not set in stone.

“It’s a significant increase for Washington State,” Inslee said, as “supplies are the limiting factor.”

So far, Washington ranks 12th in the nation for the percentage of the vaccines received that have been given out, Inslee said, with 81% of the supply “in people’s arms.”

He added that the state has allocated $15 million for outreach and equity, and the funds will be used for projects like marketing and pop-up clinics.

Teachers are part of the next set of people eligible to get vaccine, though any teachers over 65 or over 50 in multi-generation households are being vaccinated under the current eligible set, Inslee said.

He said there’s a provision in the eligibility guidelines that if there is a vaccine clinic set up at a specific place for essential works, like a food processing plant or a school, all workers would be eligible at that plant regardless of age to make the rollout more efficient.

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