Pima County schools strained by lack of COVID-19 testing as FEMA sites open

A worker at the Pima Community College West Campus COVID-19 testing site in Tucson verifies a patient’s information before a self-swab test on Jan. 24, 2022. (Photo by Hope O’Brien/Cronkite News)

A worker at the Pima Community College West Campus in Tucson explains how to self-administer a COVID-19 PCR test on Jan. 24, 2022. At the drive-thru location, patients swab themselves, and results are expected within 48 hours. (Photo by Hope O’Brien/Cronkite News)

A worker at the Pima Community College West Campus COVID-19 testing site in Tucson packages self-swab tests. The FEMA-funded site can administer and process up to 2,000 tests a day on Jan. 24, 2022. (Photo by Hope O’Brien/Cronkite News)

Pima County Community Services spokesperson Anthony Gimino says FEMA wants to “place testing in places where they could remove barriers to access.” (Photo by Hope O’Brien/Cronkite News)

Cars line up at the Pima Community College West Campus COVID-19 testing site in Tucson on Jan. 24, 2022. Employees of the clinical service provider eTrueNorth staffed the site. (Photo by Hope O’Brien/Cronkite News)

Cars line up at the Pima Community College West Campus COVID-19 testing site in Tucson on Jan. 24, 2022. Employees of the clinical service provider eTrueNorth staffed the site. (Photo by Hope O’Brien/Cronkite News)

TUCSON – Two COVID-19 testing sites funded by Federal Emergency Management Agency opened last week to mitigate the shortage of rapid testing in Pima County, a problem that’s especially acute for businesses and public schools.

The two sites, at Pima Community College West Campus and at Kino Event Center in Tucson, are drive-thru PCR testing sites that can conduct and process up to 2,000 free-of-charge self-swab tests a day for appointments or walk-ups. Results usually are available within 48 hours.

“(FEMA) wants to place testing in places where they could remove barriers to access,” Pima County Community Services spokesperson Anthony Gimino said. “They were here in the spring doing vaccinations for two months, and it was a great success.”

The West Campus site will offer tests until Feb. 12, and the Kino site will “remain open a couple of months,” Gimino said in an email, though this week some hours have been adjusted due to weather.

The Arizona Department of Health Services reported that as of Monday, more than 1.8 million COVID-19 cases have been reported in Arizona, with 26,205 deaths. Pima County has reported 228,223 cases and 3,410 deaths, according to its COVID-19 dashboard.

Dr. Francisco García, chief medical officer of Pima County Health and Community Services, said the county has hit what he calls a “high-water mark” in terms of the number of positive cases but has not reached the high mark for hospitalizations or ICU cases.

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“We are intermittently at points where we have very low (test) supply to share,” García said at a news conference Thursday. “But that’s also part of the reason why it made sense to expand our testing capacity within the county … that we’re paying for ourselves directly.”

Although finding a COVID-19 test is a national issue, schools particularly feel the strain when it comes to keeping students, faculty and staff safe. Pima County schools have been operating under a measure called “Test to Stay.”

Elected Pima County Superintendent Dustin Williams said schools use supervised tests provided by the county health department to test anyone who is either showing COVID-19 symptoms or has come in close contact with someone who has tested positive.

Williams said students who test positive stay home for five to 10 days; positive test results are reported to the state, García said.

“Pima County test kits have been prioritized for schools in the county,” he said. “We’ve been trying to save as many as we can, but that’s gotten to a point that’s extremely challenging and these test kits are becoming quite bleak.”

According to the latest available county data, 13,999 total cases have been reported in Pima County schools since July 20, 2021. Williams said county districts are averaging 650 to 1,000 cases a day total between faculty and students with a limited number of tests that can be allocated toward schools.

“That’s the challenge,” Williams said. “And with the nationwide shortage of those tests, schools are in a really tough predicament because how do you continue to do your test to stay (in person) if you just don’t have it?”

García said the county’s priority has been to supply schools and districts with tests to keep students learning in person. The federal government will ship tests directly to certain districts across the country.

“The first two school districts that are scheduled to receive these tests from the federal government are Sunnyside and Tucson Unified School Districts,” he said, noting that the FEMA and other testing sites “will meet a really significant need.”

Williams said some schools have shut down for a few days and those days will be made up at the end of the semester, but the major concern is the health of students, teachers and staff members.

“Everything changes when a community loses a child,” Williams said. “I just don’t want to see this virus do that because it’s just so rapid, and we’re trying all the efforts to keep schools open as much as possible, but that’s always lingering in the back of my mind.”

Sara Edwards Sa-ruh Ed-words (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Sara Edwards expects to graduate in May 2022 with a master’s degree focused on business journalism. Edwards, who graduated from ASU in 2021, has interned with Phoenix New Times, Phoenix Magazine and Crime and Justice News. She is working for the Phoenix news bureau.

Hope O’Brien Hope oh-bry-en (she/her/hers)
News Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Hope O’Brien expects to graduate in May 2022 with a master’s degree in mass communication. O’Brien, who has written for the Downtown Devil and interned with Destination I Do, is working for the Phoenix news bureau.

Michelle Ailport mi-SHEL AYL-port (she/her/hers)
News Digital Producer, Phoenix

Michelle Ailport expects to graduate in May 2022 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Ailport, who graduated from ASU in May 2021 with a degree in journalism and mass communication, is working for the Phoenix news bureau.

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