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Random COVID-19 tests could help stop spread: U of G researcher

Study shows testing could prevent outbreaks in schools and other congregate settings

Random testing for COVID-19 in schools, long-term care facilities and large workplaces could help control the virus’ spread and prevent outbreaks that lead to shutdowns, says a recent study involving a University of Guelph researcher.

The study, which specifically looked at in-class education, found that testing one or two students per class every day could identify those who are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic so that they can go into self isolation and limit the spread.

“These are important people to try and catch when you test and who we don’t really catch in our current paradigm of testing,” said Prof. Monica Cojocaru, study co-author and a professor in the university’s department of mathematics and statistics. “It would act as a kind of dampener in the wider community.

“I think everyone would benefit from this.”

Cojocaru believes the modelling could be applied to long-term care facilities, large workplaces, such as manufacturing, and more.

Currently, COVID-19 testing is limited to people who are experiencing symptoms or who have had direct contact with others who are infected.

“We use testing as a reaction to the virus, we play defensive,” Cojocaru said. “If we were to go on the offensive with implementing testing … what this repeated testing is offering us a chance to do is prevent a huge increase in numbers.”

Of course, willingness to be tested is a key factor.

The study, which aimed to determine how much testing would be needed in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, was led by York University professors and a post-doctoral researcher. Cojocaru developed theoretical validation for the simulations.

They concluded that regular student testing can control the spread if tests are done frequently and processed quickly for results, working with the assumption infected students can self-isolate at home.

“It’s a very involved numerical model,” Cojocaru said, noting the study looked at interactions between students and staff, together with a model of transmission. “We can keep our schools safe and help the community in the process.”

In a school with 20 classes of 25 students each (500 total pupils), and using no other controls measures such as masks or physical distancing, every student would need to be tested every 10 days to avoid school outbreaks. 

That’s 2.5 tests per day for each class, totalling about 1,000 tests per four-week period (20 school days).

Using that same school scenario but with students wearing masks, the number of tests required to prevent an outbreak drops to 1.5 per class each day or about 600 per four-week period.

“It is definitely in the realm of the possible,” Cojocaru said of testing at those levels.

Most Ontario schools have been closed to in-class learning since the holiday break began in December and the province was put into a general lockdown on Boxing Day. Online classes for all students not in Northern Ontario began on Jan. 11, though parents have had the option of online learning for their children since the start of the school year.

Schools in hot-spot areas such as Toronto, Peel and Hamilton are slated to reopen on Feb. 10.

“Many parents are really looking for a light at the end of the tunnel of these online studies,” said Cojocaru, who has a child in Grade 3 within the Upper Grand District School Board. “Since we’re in lockdown, let’s use the time to rethink our approach.”


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Richard Vivian

About the Author: Richard Vivian

Richard Vivian is an award-winning journalist and longtime Guelph resident. He joined the GuelphToday team as assistant editor in 2020, largely covering municipal matters and general assignment duties
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