Availability of at-home COVID tests for students, school staff varies across Sonoma County

With schools a week into winter break, some local officials are scrambling to deliver what few tests they’ve received to the families who need them most before the start of school.|

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Before Sonoma County’s approximately 69,000 public and private school students head from winter break back to the classroom in January, county health officials hope they’ll have taken a COVID-19 test.

To encourage that, both school districts and the county Department of Health have sought to provide families with rapid antigen tests they can take at home at no cost.

But delays in some of those antigen home kits’ arrivals in the county, which are likely linked to a nationwide shortage of tests, has hampered that distribution, leaving those same local officials scrambling to deliver what tests they’ve already received to the families who need them most before the start of school.

“We’re really committed and working hard to get them in the hands of people who can use them,” said Maya Missakian, director of nursing for Sonoma County. “We know it’s not going to be perfect.”

The rapid spread of the highly contagious omicron variant in the weeks before classes begin again has school and health officials on high alert.

The county health department and at least some local school districts looked to the state’s COVID-19 Testing Task Force to supply them with the at-home antigen tests. Some agencies seemed to have been able to make requests for specific amounts, but others had to take whatever they were allocated.

It’s not immediately clear why some tests from the task force arrived in time for schools to distribute them before break, while others arrived later.

Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District received 6,000 iHealth home test kits before Dec. 22, the first day of winter break, said Superintendent Mayra Perez.

The district notified its approximately 800 staffers and 6,100 students they could pick up tests at their school sites during the final week of the term. Not everyone took one, Perez said.

But, “we were really fortunate to be able to get enough tests to provide them for everyone who wanted them,” she said.

Each of the iHealth kits contains two rapid tests. Petaluma City Schools, which also announced it has kits to distribute over winter break, asked parents to ensure their child takes the first test on Dec. 31, and the second on Jan. 2, the day before they return to school.

“If your child does test positive for COVID-19, please keep your child home and alert your school site right away,” the district said in its announcement about the distribution.

Petaluma families can pick up rapid test kits either at the district office at 200 Douglas St., or at the McDowell Resource Center, 421 S. McDowell Blvd. The district has listed dates and times for pickup on its website.

Sonoma County Public Health’s rollout of the rapid tests it has received will likely take a lot more calculation and work over the holiday break.

The agency received the first of two 3,000-test kit allocations Dec. 23, said Dr. Leslie Kimura, health analyst for the county. From there, county officials will coordinate with school sites to distribute them.

Ensuring that distribution reaches families who have the least access to COVID tests through other channels is a key priority, said Denia Candela, health equity officer for the county.

The county is examining which schools serve areas with the lowest health performance index, and which have the highest number of students eligible for free and reduced meals, Candela said. It will also take into account which schools have already received tests through the state task force, and which communities have been hit hardest by COVID.

“That way we can spread this very precious resource as equitably as possible,” Candela said.

The county steered the majority of its tests to schools — about 67%, Kimura said. The rest are being distributed to local homeless shelters and in-home nurses, among other groups.

“We recognize this is not enough,” Kimura said. “We continue to ask for more.”

In addition to testing, however, Candela also emphasized the importance of other safety measures to protect against COVID infection and mitigate risks. Vaccination remains a key part of that strategy.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase, on Thursday, issued two new health orders requiring both emergency workers and school staff to receive booster shots or submit to twice-weekly COVID testing, starting Feb. 1.

“Our best ability to fight this disease is vaccination,” Candela said. “And continuing to mask and social distance is always great, especially during these times.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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