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Yale Student Helping with Launch of National COVID-19 Testing Program in K-12 Schools

December 01, 2021
by Colin Poitras

A Yale School of Public Health student who helped convince New Zealand health officials to use saliva testing for COVID-19 surveillance is now assisting the U.S. government in setting up COVID-19 screening programs in K-12 schools across the country.

Steph Tan, a first-year graduate student and research lead with the SalivaDirect lab at Yale, is serving as a testing operations specialist on an expert panel that is advising local school districts on how to set up COVID-19 screening testing for students, teachers and staff as quickly as possible.

The testing initiative, known as the K-12 National Testing Action Program, is being led by The Rockefeller Foundation in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is part of President Joseph Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan, which calls on all schools to set up regular testing programs consistent with CDC guidance. The Biden administration has earmarked $10 billion in funding for COVID-19 screening testing in schools, in addition to $130 billion previously provided to states and school districts for testing.

While vaccines remain the most powerful tool in limiting spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, other precautionary measures such as regular screening testing, mask-wearing and good indoor ventilation are also needed to keep the highly transmissible virus at bay.

“Screening testing is a critical strategy to identify positive cases of COVID-19 in students and staff and ensure that K-12 schools can operate safely during the COVID-19 pandemic,” The White House said in a statement outlining the testing initiative.

Tan has extensive knowledge of COVID-19 testing procedures, having served as the lead author of an April 2021 research paper validating saliva as a gold-standard sample for SARS-CoV-2 detection. The paper was published in the international scientific research journal The Lancet Respiratory Medicine. She also has a natural gift for communicating complicated scientific information in a way that is easy for people with non-science backgrounds to understand.

Those skills helped Tan convince New Zealand’s Ministry of Health of the merits of saliva testing for SARS-CoV-2 at a time when political leaders were hesitant to adopt the procedure over the more widely used nasopharyngeal swabs. Tan, a native of New Zealand, worked under the close direction of Yale Research Scientist Anne Wyllie, Ph.D., who developed the SalivaDirect testing protocol now being used in more than 150 labs across the U.S. Wyllie is also a New Zealand native.

Wyllie said Tan’s innate ability to translate complicated science into easy-to-understand terms, and present research data knowledgeably and confidently, allows her to gain the trust and respect of the wide range of people she comes into contact with, including those in high-profile political posts, health care providers and business leaders.

“Steph is a truly inspiring advocate for public health,” Wyllie said. “Her exceptional communication skills have been a valuable asset during important discussions on the use of saliva testing in New Zealand and elsewhere.”

Through multiple media interviews and numerous private meetings with New Zealand health officials and members of the country’s parliament, Wyllie and Tan helped convince political leaders to adopt saliva screening as a mandatory testing option for the country’s highly vulnerable border workers.

“Dr. Wyllie and I had been pushing for saliva testing in New Zealand from the get-go, but it was initially met with a lot of skepticism,” said Tan, who will obtain a master’s degree in public health with a focus on health policy in 2023. “I believe we spent about six months trying to convince New Zealand government members that it was the way to go.”

The timing of The Lancet paper validating saliva testing, with Tan as the lead author and Wyllie as the senior author, helped convince New Zealand officials of its scientific reliability – as did the increasing number of other countries, such as the United States and Japan, that were recognizing saliva testing as a cost-efficient, sensitive and highly reliable alternative to nasal swabs. In August of 2021, the New Zealand government passed legislation certifying saliva testing as a valid COVID-19 surveillance procedure for border workers, who are required to be tested regularly.

It was a huge victory for Tan, Wyllie and the SalivaDirect team.

Tan hopes New Zealand and other countries will maintain or adopt the use of saliva testing for COVID-19 screening in airports, retirement communities and schools in the future. She noted that SalivaDirect is an open-source testing protocol, meaning neither Wyllie’s lab nor Yale benefit financially from its widespread use. The SalivaDirect team’s primary mission is to make affordable and equitable SARS-CoV-2 screening available in the U.S. and around the world.

Tan became somewhat of a nationally known figure during her time advocating for saliva testing in New Zealand. She regularly appeared on Radio New Zealand as a science correspondent and special guest of popular host Jesse Mulligan. She also led a national rally against anti-Asian violence in March 2021 following the shooting deaths of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta. More than 1,500 people attended the Auckland march, and Tan’s efforts were highlighted in a Wall Street Journal article a few days later.

“We marched down a main street, and it was one of the most poignant and powerful moments, especially for New Zealand’s Asian community,” Tan said. “It really sparked a lot of conversations in New Zealand that needed to be heard but were always hidden.”

Given her relocation to New Haven during her current semester at Yale and work with SalivaDirect, Tan stepped away from her leadership role in addressing anti-Asian racism in New Zealand a few months ago. For now, she is entirely focused on her efforts with The Rockefeller Foundation and getting her M.P.H. degree.

As a technical expert for the national K-12 testing program, Tan is participating in twice weekly “office hours” with local school officials across the country. She, along with experts from the CDC, U.S. Department of Education and The Rockefeller Foundation, answer questions and provide guidance to school officials as needed. The learning network meetings started Nov. 2 and run through Dec. 22.

When the meetings are over, Tan will serve as a lead author on a report for The Rockefeller Foundation that will summarize the needs and challenges identified during the learning sessions. The report also will provide school officials with detailed tactical guidance on how to start and sustain school-based COVID-19 testing so students can continue to benefit from in-person learning. The final report will be available to school leaders around the country and will be shared with The White House, CDC and U.S. Department of Education.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on November 30, 2021