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ISU Trustees Approve COVID Hotel, Testing Contracts

testing site
Ryan Denham
A COVID-19 testing site located behind Alamo II near Watterson Towers at ISU.

The Illinois State University Board of Trustees on Friday unanimously approved a contract booking blocks of hotel rooms to quarantine students who are deemed close contacts to a COVID-positive peer.

ISU already set aside 5% of rooms in university housing to isolate students who test positive or quarantine others who may have been exposed. So far, that space has been sufficient, but administrators say they want to be prepared for a potential spike in cases down the line.

President Larry Dietz said 233 students have been placed in on-campus quarantine since the start of the semester on Aug. 17. University housing is only at about half capacity, but Dietz said the university wants to ensure enough single rooms are available in a worst-case scenario.

“What we’re doing with this resolution is kind of planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” Dietz told trustees at their quarterly meeting.

Administrators said they want to be flexible and respectful of the preferences of students, as well as parents. Levester Johnson, vice president of student affairs, said students are encouraged to stay on-campus if they’ve been exposed to the virus, but can decide to return home. He said some students might not be able to return home, but also don’t feel comfortable on-campus.

“Every now and then, maybe you have somebody that they don’t want to be seen on campus. We can leverage, then, those spaces in the hotels,” Johnson said. “We provide the transportation, we have case managers who work with these students—whether they’re on-campus or off-campus—we check with them on a daily basis.”

Student trustee Jada Turner raised concerns about potential exposure risks for other hotel patrons, with ISU sending ill students.

Johnson responded that ISU’s quarantine space is insular.

“These spaces that we would be contracting for are on a particular floor and they’re only for us. Those students, then, are expected to stay in those spaces and not leave their rooms,” Johnson said. “They’re separate from any hotel guests.”

The contract with two Bloomington-Normal hotels can be regularly revisited, administrators said, with the number of rooms blocked off varying with the need for quarantine space. The hotels will receive a minimum amount of money from the university, regardless of whether students are occupying the rooms. Administrators said the amount spent on hotel rooms will not exceed $1.6 million.

Saliva-based testing

Trustees also unanimously approved a plan to process rapid saliva-based testing on the ISU campus.

The $5.5 million contract covers seven months of on-campus testing for students, faculty and staff.

Dietz said the university will be able to conduct about 13,000 tests a week—more than the total conducted so far this semester—for a total of 275,000 over the course of the contract.

Dietz said the contract won’t take effect until the saliva-based tests developed by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign gain FDA approval. He said until ISU’s processing lab is certified, the tests will have to be transported to UIUC.

The saliva-based tests will cost the university $20 a pop. That’s compared to $100 per swab test under ISU’s contract with Pekin-based Reditus Labs.

John Baur, the university’s testing czar, told trustees ISU has only used about half of the tests covered by the Reditus contract—roughly 12,000. He said some testing will likely resume under the old model when ISU introduces saliva-based testing before the end of the fall semester, but will eventually phase out.

Trustee Mary Ann Louderback expressed concern over the timeline of the testing change and what it would mean for students returning after winter break.

She said optional testing for students before their return to campus for the fall semester created tension with the Bloomington-Normal community, and she pressed administrators on making so-called entry testing a requirement for the spring.

“To me, for our own sanity and to kind of assist with the townspeople when all these students come back, I would think we would want to at least have them at that point be negative,” Louderback said. “We all know that we don’t really know what’s going to happen or who’s going to get it. But that’s always been a worry to me: why we don’t have them test at least once before they come back.”

Baur noted the saliva-based testing should be up and running by then, but added it’s not for him to decide when to require students to get tested. Dietz said mandatory testing before a return to campus would be difficult to enforce.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that the hotel rooms are not reserved for sick students, but for students who are deemed close contacts and need to quarantine. Students may develop symptoms during their stay.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.