Widespread testing will be one of the most important layers of protection to reduce transmission of COVID-19 in schools this fall, Dr. Christopher Ohl said in a briefing Thursday.
Ohl is an infectious disease expert with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that public schools implement a testing strategy that screens for the virus as part of their mitigation strategy.
Screenings are done on individuals with no symptoms or known contact with someone with COVID-19.
In updated guidance issued Wednesday, the state said schools should test students who have not been fully vaccinated when community transmission is at moderate, substantial or high levels. “At any level of community transmission, screening testing should be offered to all teachers and staff who have not been fully vaccinated,” according to the guidance.
Free, rapid testing should be offered on-site at schools.
Officials with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools are sorting through the new guidelines and expect to update their COVID-19 protocols by the end of the month, Superintendent Tricia McManus said on Wednesday.
The new school year will begin on Aug. 23.
The state guidelines say that schools should refer people for diagnostic testing when their symptoms are consistent with COVID-19.
On Thursday, Ohl said that this fall, schools should be suspicious of every cough and sniffle.
Because so many people were masked last year, the cold and flu season was mild. This year will be different, Ohl predicted.
“Anyone who has a cold will have to have it sorted out — Is it a cold? Is it the flu? Is it COVID?” Ohl said. “There will be a lot of demand for testing.”
Vaccinated people will also need to test. Though rare, breakthrough cases can happen, especially if a person is surrounded by unvaccinated people.
“The best way to protect yourself from a breakthrough is to surrounded yourself with vaccinated people,” he said.
Because a vaccine does not exist for children under 12, Ohl said he supports Gov. Roy Cooper’s recommendation that staff and students in K-8 schools wear masks indoors.
“One thing we learned that does make a difference is a mask,” he said. “And the kids are fine with it, actually. It’s the adults who seem to have more problems.”
Schools with a high percentage of vaccinated staff and students, say around 80%, may consider relaxing masking protocols, he said.
About 70% of North Carolinians between the ages of 12-17 are unvaccinated.