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North Carolina to launch free, rapid COVID-19 testing in schools this month

North Carolina health leaders are recommending the rapid tests for students and staff who have been exposed to COVID-19 or show symptoms.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Free rapid COVID-19 testing will soon become available to all public schools in North Carolina, health officials announced Thursday.

Starting Dec. 14, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services will launch a pilot program that offers free antigen rapid testing for all public K-12 schools and public charter schools who are teaching in-person classes. 

The antigen tests require either a nose swab or saliva sample and provide results within 15 minutes compared to other tests where results may take days to receive. However, the downside of rapid testing is the possibility of false negatives. 

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to trend upward in schools statewide, health officials are in desperate need of a solution. Dr. Elizabeth Tilson with the state's health department says keeping students and staff safe is a priority. 

“The point of testing is early identification in people who may be positive so that we can more quickly put in those control measures to prevent spreads through the schools,” said Tilson.

RELATED: Rapid COVID-19 testing for SC schools ordered by governor

North Carolina health officials say there are three ways the rapid tests could be distributed to students and staff. They include mobile testing sties, testing at local hospitals or testing on campus, allowing trained employees to administer the tests and provide results. 

By the end of December, North Carolina is on track to receive over 3 million rapid tests from the federal government. State health officials say if testing runs smoothly in schools this month, by January the plan is for testing to become available at all schools statewide. 

To receive tests, districts must apply to their local health department. The tests are not mandatory and parental permission is required before students are tested.

The downside of the rapid tests are the accuracy of the results. Health officials say the tests has a greater possibility of false negatives.

If approved, rapid tests could arrive to districts as early as Dec. 14 and then be distributed to all schools by the end of the year.

RELATED: Here's how health experts know the vaccine works

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools released new data relating to COVID-19 cases in schools Tuesday afternoon. The new numbers show there have been 23 new cases of Covid-19 among staff members. For reference, there are 19,106 staff members within CMS.  

Among students, there have been 22 new cases reported, according to the latest data. There are 41,688 students in the district who are reporting for in-person learning. 

This data represents a four-day time period, shorter than what they typically release. For perspective, that's only eight less students than the previous full week.

But there are still no signs that COVID-19 is spreading within the school buildings.

RELATED: Panel recommends health care workers, long-term care residents get COVID-19 vaccine first

Earlier this week, the CMS Board of Education formally requested school staff be a top priority to receive the Coronavirus vaccine when it is available. 

On Tuesday, the board sent a letter to Dr. Nathaniel Smith with the CDC, Dr. Mandy Cohen with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and Gibbie Harris, the Mecklenburg County Health Director.

RELATED: CMS Board of Education requests school staff be a priority for coronavirus vaccine

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