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Less than 1% of students using Colorado's free COVID testing program in schools

Gov. Jared Polis said Monday he wishes he could "repurpose" some of the federal money that's funding the program in Colorado.

DENVER — The project's budget is more than $170 million, yet less than 1% of students in Colorado are taking advantage of the state’s free COVID testing program in schools.

This program started more than a month ago. Gov. Jared Polis said that around 5,000 students got tested through the program last week, which is up from previous weeks.

"We’re currently at 571 schools," said Polis. "Last week we tested about 5,000 students on a weekly cadence. That’s up from 4,000 the week before, 3,400 the week before that. 2,900 the week before that. So it’s going up."

Still, 5,000 isn’t a whole lot considering there are more than 883,000 students in the state. That means about half of 1% of all students in Colorado got a COVID test last week through the program funded by federal dollars.

Monday, Polis said he wished he could repurpose some of that $173 million to help convince people to get vaccinated.

"When the federal government offers us money, we like to deploy it," Polis told 9NEWS. "I wish we could repurpose it for other purposes including additional work around vaccination, but look, the vaccination work is well resourced. We’re not wanting for resources there. We plan to continue to be welcoming and open to as many schools and kids that want to participate in weekly testing as demand allows."

The governor has offered incentives to try and kickstart the program, a method the state has tried previously in the pandemic. Over the summer, Colorado ran a vaccine sweepstakes encouraging people to get the shot, though a new study from the University of Colorado Denver found those incentives didn’t convince people to sign up.

Students who get tested under this program get $25 for the first COVID-19 test, and then $10 for every test administered in subsequent weeks, with a maximum of one incentive per week.

But maybe the price is too low, according to the governor, who said the state is limited by what it can offer. 

"We had wanted to offer more," said Polis, who said the state is limited by the federal government. "We thought if we were offering $30, $40, $50 we would have more, and we probably would. We would have more students, there’s no question."

Several dozen positive tests have already been found through testing done by the program, Polis said. He argues that helped hundreds of others stay healthy. 

"With over 5,000 kids a week testing, we’ve already successfully identified around 60 or 70 kids that tested positive," said Polis. "Each one of those could have gone on to transmit that virus to several more. So we’ve prevented several hundred cases more of COVID through the testing program. If tens of thousands of students were using it every week instead of 5,000, we’d be preventing even more COVID testing."   

But now it’s not just a lack of students signing up that have some schools frustrated. 

Brian Hill is the assistant superintendent at Mesa County Valley School District 51. 

"We signed up in early September, I believe it was the first week of September," said Hill. "We’re still waiting on more information from the state so that we can actually begin the testing program."

His district planned to use the program to offer regular rapid testing for students, but still hasn’t received the majority of tests or the link for parents to give permission to students.

"Last year we were the largest school district in the state to open in-person and stay in-person and we wanted to continue that obviously. This is going to be a big key to that," said Hill. "It’s definitely something that we’re looking forward to being able to implement once we get all the information."

How much testing would be required to make this program successful?

"The more the better," said  Dr. Glen Mays, a professor of health policy at the Colorado School of Public Health.

Twenty percent to 25% would be good, he said, but the reality is that if you don’t test enough students, the testing program misses so many more cases than it finds.

"There's really no firm threshold that you need to hit," said Mays. "The more students who are covered with routine testing, the more likely you are to be able to detect cases, especially asymptomatic cases or cases amongst kids that have only mild symptoms."

Greeley-Evans School District 6 was also interested in implementing the program, but told 9NEWS Monday they’ve decided to pause the implementation after staff realized how much time and attention it would take. Over in Jefferson County, the athletic director in charge of implementing their testing program mandated by the health department described the situation to 9NEWS last week with one word: "Challenging."

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