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‘If you’re a teacher, it’s a lot safer to be in school:’ InHouse Physicians CEO

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Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous and Reggie Wade discuss how schools can combat COVID-19 with Jonathan Spero, M.D., Founder and CEO of InHouse Physicians.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: One of the biggest questions amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been whether or not schools can open safely, and if so, how? Our next guest has spent a lot of time wrestling with that question. Dr. Jonathan Spero is a pandemic preparedness expert and the founder and CEO of InHouse Physicians. It's a company delivering COVID-19 testing to K through 12 schools in New York City.

Dr. Spero, thanks for making time for us. So, look, President Biden has vowed to reopen schools quickly. Easier said than done. How are we going to get kids and teachers back into the classroom?

JONATHAN SPERO: Well, first, we got to get the community positivity rates down. You can't open schools if they have high positivity rates in different regions. It's just-- it's a non-starter. But once you get those down, which we're seeing some positive signs that we may have hit the peak-- I'm not actually convinced yet that we have. But if we have hit the peak, and we come down-- we have lower positivity rates in urban areas and rural areas-- then we can start thinking about reopening schools.

Some of the things are just the basics, blocking and tackling. You have to have a social distancing, mask wearing, temperature checks, maybe even daily health surveys of improvement and the ventilation systems. Those are all just the basics, the foundational things that you need to do. I think what is not happening right now and in 99% of schools, is that there is no testing going on.

And what we've seen with the New York City schools is that when you perform testing, you're doing surveillance testing and have a surveillance program that's testing students and faculty regularly that you can reduce transmission rates and reduce the chance of having outbreaks.

REGGIE WADE: Dr. Spero, Reggie Wade here. What has been the frequency of testing with New York City students and teachers? And what's been the toughest part of getting all these folks tested in a timely manner?

JONATHAN SPERO: Hey, great question. I appreciate it. Well, they started out with once a month, but they weren't testing all the schools. They were testing each school once a month, but they weren't testing all the students in each school once a month. And then, their positivity rate went-- in New York City, went above, like, 3% back in the November, end of November timeframe. And so, they closed the school down. They sat down with the unions again. And now, they're-- now we're testing all 1,000 schools about once a week.

So that, again, we're not testing all the students once a week. There was a great study that came-- a simulation study that came out of the Harvard School of Public Health that showed-- recommended that if you're doing surveillance testing of everybody about once a week, you can really reduce the transmission rates and the chance of having an outbreak. If you do it even more than once a week, that's better. But so I wouldn't say they're at an optimal testing place right now. But they're a lot better than that 99% of other schools that aren't doing any testing.

REGGIE WADE: Dr. Spero, I was a former high school teacher. And many people had said the schools are the best place for our children. And I believe most Americans believe that. But do you believe opening schools to convey a sense of normalcy is a good policy right now? Or should we really be looking at what the data tells us?

JONATHAN SPERO: Well, yeah, you should always look at the data, right? I can tell you right now, with the New York City schools, I would say that if you're a teacher, it's probably a lot safer to be at school than to be walking the streets of New York City because the positivity rate-- or the positivity rate is less than 0.1%. When you're looking at a city that may be at 3%, that's quite a good risk profile to have if you're going to be going to school as a teacher.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Doctor, I know that the Catholic schools here in New York City have actually sued the DOE. They claim that they've been cheated out of free rapid COVID-19 tests. They say they're due those tests by law. Is the problem that-- is part of the problem that there are not enough tests to go around? Because you're actually in the business of testing the students. Do we have an ample supply of the tests?

JONATHAN SPERO: Yes, there's plenty of supplies. It all has to do with finances. There's just not-- I mean, there's not enough money to go around right now. So I mean, from a policy point of view, from the federal government, I think that's critical that we provide states and cities with the money that they need to perform testing on K through 12 schools.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Do you think, looking ahead-- I mean, we know we have the vaccine rollout now. It's going to take months before we can get the younger population vaccinated. But when that happens, do you think that schools should mandate that students, teachers, faculty be vaccinated?

JONATHAN SPERO: That's a great question. Well, as long as there's-- you really can't mandate it unless you offer another option, right? So, with the Disabilities Act, the ADA, and that sort of thing, you have to have an alternative for employers. You have to do that for schools. It's just, you've got to have a virtual option. So that may come to it that you may not be able to go to work or school at certain districts or certain employers, unless you've been vaccinated. And then, you'll have to go to school or work remotely. I don't have a crystal ball, but that's a possibility.

REGGIE WADE: Dr. Spero, we hear that your company may begin testing other districts across the country. What kind of unique challenges do other districts present that New York maybe doesn't?

JONATHAN SPERO: I mean, that's a great question because I think New York's the toughest. I think it's absolutely the toughest, just because of the challenges of transportation and the fact that there's so many logistical challenges in that city. Once you get out, we're looking at a school, a large school district, top five school district in the country out west. That's going to be a lot easier, just because, you know, you don't have the transportation issues or the distribution issues that you have in the big city like New York.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Yeah, best to start out with the tough ones first, right? All right, Dr. Jonathan Spero, CEO of InHouse Physicians, thanks for your time today.

JONATHAN SPERO: It was a pleasure. Take care.