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Saliva-Based Testing At ISU Still Stalled, Eyeing Feb. 1 Launch

Emily Bollinger
Saliva-based testing has started on the Illinois State University campus, but not under the Shield Illinois program, as originally planned in the fall.

Illinois State University students are back on campus for the spring semester, and a new COVID-19 testing program could be awaiting them.

The university continued swab PCR COVID-19 testing as students moved back into residence halls. But more widespread saliva-based testing under the Shield Illinois program remains stalled.

John Baur, ISU chemistry professor and COVID-19 testing coordinator, said the university is now hoping for a Feb. 1 launch for the program that originally was supposed to be off the ground in the fall.

Baur said ISU is still waiting on federal approval for an on-campus lab to run the tests. Technology is another hang up.

“It’s the way that the results are accumulated,” Baur said. “If you're doing, say, 5,000 tests a day, the results of those tests have to be fed into what's called the electronic medical record system, or EMR. That’s an automated process.”

The Shield system is developing an interface specifically for ISU’s testing program, said Baur, adding it will look different from the app developed by the University of Illinois that requires users to verify their testing status before entering campus buildings, and notifies users of potential exposure.

Baur said ISU had hoped to offer the same features, but it proved to be impossible. He said the technology piece also was behind the decision not to require most students to submit to COVID-19 testing.

“We don't have the means to track or to verify that you've been tested because we don’t have access to the same app system that the U of I does,” Baur said.

But Baur said even without requiring testing, university officials are confident they’ll have enough data to grasp the COVID situation on campus—largely because testing will be more accessible than it was during the fall semester.

“One of the differences is that we'll have flexibility to have more sites (where) you can go to get tested,” Baur said. “The results will come more quickly. There'll be very few restrictions on how often you get tested. I mean, obviously, we don't have people testing five times a day, but you could test two, three times a week, if you want.”

Another difference is that faculty and staff will be eligible for on-campus testing for the first time, he said.

Baur added that just because ISU didn’t have the same amount of testing data as the U of I last semester, that didn’t mean the COVID situation was any less under control in Bloomington-Normal than in Champaign-Urbana. He said the two universities saw caseloads peak and drop at effectively the same times.

“We saw that big spike at the beginning, which everybody was pretty concerned about, of course. But even after that, the positivity rate essentially stayed low for students,” Baur said. “In fact, our positivity stayed below the community's positivity rate for much of the last half of the semester.”

ISU primarily used nasal swab PCR testing conducted by Reditus Labs through the end of December, Baur said. When the university decided move-in testing was paramount come January, he said, the school opted for antigen testing that offers results in 15-30 minutes and are cheaper to run.

Once the Shield Illinois program is up and running, the university will offer saliva-based PCR tests that have a lower risk of false negatives without the wait time of last semester’s swab tests.

“Having the results back for the PCR more quickly will allow us to isolate much more quickly, so we'll get that data back to people before they're out and about and being infectious,” Baur said.

In the meantime, he said, the university is test driving its on-campus diagnostic lab to ensure it’s ready to go.

“We're actually doing a fair number of what's called ‘surveillance samples.’ So that's not a clinical result, it's just de-identified results that allow us to practice and basically go through the method and make sure we're developing our skills—and the tests are running as we expect,” Baur said.

Now, he said, it’s just a waiting game.

ISU has conducted more than 3,000 COVID-19 tests since the start of the year. Those test results turned up 70 positive student cases. The university’s testing positivity rate (7-day rolling) is currently 2.9%. That’s nearly double the first week of testing this semester.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Illinois State University had rolled out some saliva-based testing in advance of the Shield Illinois program. ISU is currently offering swab antigen testing. Once Shield Illinois is up and running, the university will offer saliva-based PCR testing. We regret the error.

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