LAUSD's COVID-19 Testing Sites Have Turned Away Symptomatic People — But That Could Change Next Week

A sign outside Harry Bridges Span School in Wilmington on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, directs employees to an L.A. Unified School District COVID-19 testing site. The nation's second-largest school system was announcing the launch of a district-run coronavirus testing system for students, staff and some family members. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)

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Last Thursday, Delondra Mesa got an email inviting her 8-year-old son to take a free coronavirus test through his LAUSD school.

"It was perfect timing," Mesa recalled, "because we were both sick. We both had fevers the night before," along with sweats and chills. Her son had milder symptoms, but complained his chest felt tight.

Mesa had more reason to be anxious: Her aunt and grandmother were also running fevers after a recent family funeral — held outdoors, with attendees wearing masks — that Mesa had also attended: "I was worried I had perhaps exposed my son to COVID."

So when the Los Angeles Unified School District's invite for a test arrived, "I immediately clicked on the link."

But Mesa couldn't book an appointment for her son. On the website the link opened, a message popped up on the screen saying LAUSD wasn't currently testing anyone displaying possible COVID-19 symptoms — so her son would be turned away.


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'WE'RE GROWING INTO THIS'

LAUSD officials have been ramping up an ambitious effort to periodically test all district students and staff for COVID-19. In August, LAUSD made a $51.3 million deal with a start-up lab company to provide the kits for up to 100,000 coronavirus tests per week.

In a press release announcing the program's launch in mid-September, Superintendent Austin Beutner said the district "will be testing both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals."

But since testing began in earnest, Mesa and a handful of other LAUSD staffers and parents have reached out to our newsroom to report the district's 42 testing sites were turning away individuals who showed possible symptoms of COVID-19, or who had reason to believe they were exposed.

In an interview earlier this month, Beutner confirmed these reports. He said the district intended to open up its testing sites to symptomatic individuals in the near future.

After we followed up, spokeswoman Shannon Haber said Thursday that, starting sometime next week, LAUSD hopes to open up "a few" district-run testing sites where symptomatic individuals can make appointments.

"We're growing into this," Beutner said on Oct. 1. "What we did not want to do is bring in highly symptomatic people in the first week or ten days of testing operations until we figured out a way to do that in the safest way possible."

'IT DIDN'T FEEL TRANSPARENT'

"We are doing something no other district in the nation has done," Beutner added. "Operationally, we have to walk" before we can run.

Mesa was glad to hear of the change in policy — but remains puzzled about why the district wasn't more upfront with the public from the outset.

"It didn't feel transparent," said Mesa. "Don't tell me [testing] is available for everyone, and then say, 'But not your child,' because he potentially has the disease we're trying to count and track."

She added that she would've understood if LAUSD had said it was not yet ready to test symptomatic individuals; she doesn't expect miracles. While Mesa was finally able to obtain a COVID-19 test — her results just came back negative — she also has insurance and reliable internet, and she worries about how LAUSD families who lack those necessities would track down a test.

On the other hand, Scott Bartell, an epidemiologist and professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine, said LAUSD does have reason to be cautious: "Testing logistics are complicated, so perhaps this decision is aimed at ensuring that safety."

"Yes, it is more important for symptomatic individuals to get tested," Bartell said in an email, "but also that the test conditions themselves don't spread the illness."

Austin Beutner (left), superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District, takes directions from a school nurse after taking a test for COVID-19 at a press event at Harry Bridges Span School in Wilmington on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. The nation's second-largest school system was announcing the launch of a district-run coronavirus testing system for students, staff and some family members. (Kyle Stokes/LAist)

NEW CONTEXT FOR THE NUMBERS

Knowing the district's testing program has so far turned away symptomatic individuals is important context to understanding the results of LAUSD's coronavirus testing program.

Over the last month, LAUSD has administered some 45,000 tests and received results from more than 41,000 of those tests, according to figures Beutner released on Monday.

Of those test results, roughly 0.2% — or 95 — have come back positive.

Regardless of whether symptomatic individuals were tested, LAUSD officials have always said their program would be testing far more asymptomatic individuals than L.A. County as a whole — and would thus have a far lower positivity rate. Countywide, the positivity rate has hovered just above 3% since September.

LAUSD officials pitched their COVID-19 testing program as a comprehensive public health effort. The district would also stand-up a contact tracing operation to follow-up on positive results — and university researchers at UCLA, Stanford and Johns Hopkins would analyze the data to help determine who to invite for testing, when.

Researchers have said access to LAUSD's testing data will allow them "to study the impact and effects of Los Angeles Unified's reopening plan."

Dr. Dan Cooper, a professor of pediatrics at UC Irvine, said he would want to know more about the research aims attached to LAUSD's testing program.

If a research aim of LAUSD's testing program is to study how school closures have affected the spread of the virus, Cooper said it matters whether symptomatic individuals get tested somewhere else. If they did, wouldn't LAUSD want to know the results of those tests? And factor those results into their study of the district?

"If I felt, for medical safety reasons, that I would not invite that kid to a testing site — which is legitimate," Cooper said, "I would at least want a mechanism where I could at least ask public health, or be allowed to ask those parents, would you share this data?"