Illinois State University will soon require students to be tested regularly for COVID-19, a shift in strategy that epidemiologists say is key to catching the coronavirus early, university officials said Wednesday.
Currently, students with or without symptoms have the option to be tested on campus, but it’s not required (with the exception of a few select groups, like those doing clinical experiences for their major). That will change “very soon,” although the details on who and how many will be regularly tested are not yet finalized, said ISU’s testing coordinator John Baur, a chemistry professor. Students living on-campus will be among those required, he said.
This change will happen even before ISU opens its own saliva-based testing lab, which is still 8 to 10 weeks away, Baur said.
“We have been planning to do that all along. There have been some logistical reasons that hadn’t allowed us to do it. But we’re planning to institute that very soon. And information will be going to the students soon,” Baur told WGLT. “We do have the capacity to (test) more students.”
ISU saw a spike in COVID-19 cases among its students at the start of the fall semester. Over 1,300 students tested positive. The number of new positive tests has tapered off in the last five days—down to the single digits—but so has the number of students being tested.
When ISU signed its $3.3 million surveillance testing contract with Reditus, it said it was expecting to test 1,500 students every week through December. ISU met or exceeded that goal during the first three weeks of the semester, but it fell short over the past seven days.
“I’m hoping we can drive some more students to come and get tested,” Baur said.
Testing strategies vary widely from school to school, and resources are one factor. Not every campus can afford to pay $110 per test, as ISU is doing with Reditus. About 27% of colleges planned to test students as they returned to campus, according to one estimate. About 1 in 5 colleges planned to test their communities regularly to some extent.
One reason for that variance is less-than-aggressive federal guidance. Over the summer the Trump administration said colleges should only test symptomatic students and employees and those who have known or suspected contact with an infected individual. A research team that studied higher ed testing strategies found “growing evidence that universities are using lax federal guidelines to justify the lack of testing on their campuses.”
The federal government impacted ISU even more directly. In late July ISU learned that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had reallocated (to another location) three testing machines and 5,000 reagent kits the university had ordered. ISU officials said that "significantly curtailed" on-campus testing capacity and was a factor in the late decision to shift to mostly online classes for the fall.
ISU is not the only school to adjust its testing strategy on the fly. Purdue initially required testing only for returning students, only to announce a broader surveillance testing program the Friday before the semester began. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tested all students, faculty, and staff twice a week at first, but found the volume of tests overwhelming. U of I officials said most positive tests were among undergraduate students, and the university reduced required testing for graduate students, faculty, and staff to once a week.
ISU “strongly encouraged” but did not require students to be tested before returning to Normal. Why was it not required?
“There were discussions about that,” said ISU spokesperson Eric Jome. “And it was just a lot of decisions about what you can compel people to do, and if you make it mandatory, what sort of system do you have to have in place to enforce it? At the time, the decision was made to go with the ‘we strongly encourage you to do this, and if you do test positive, that you delay your return.’”
Pre-arrival testing was no guarantee against an outbreak. Notre Dame required that, and the campus still was forced to temporarily shift to online learning after off-campus parties led to outbreaks.
Voluntary vs. required
With the semester now underway, some schools, such as the U of I, are running regular, required surveillance testing programs. Many others have not.
Highly structured surveillance testing is preferred in part because “we know that people can test positive a couple days before they show symptoms, and some don’t show symptoms at all,” said Sarah Cobey, associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago.
“When testing is voluntary, you don’t really know what you’re looking at,” Cobey said. “You can tell sometimes when there’s been a big outbreak through contact tracing and because lots of people are getting very symptomatic after some big party. But it’s providing you too little information, too late. It’s just not responsible epidemiologically.”
Others are critical of the voluntary approach.
“I don’t know why some of it’s still not mandatory,” said ISU student body vice president Ethan Kosberg. “(ISU’s testing plan) has been lacking, to say the least.”
Kosberg also suspects ISU’s data is undercounting COVID-19 cases. ISU students who get tested off-campus, like at the Interstate Center, are encouraged but not required to self-report their positive results. Given the social stigma around testing positive, Kosberg said he’s doubtful students will really do that.
“They might not tell anyone. They might not report that,” he said.
Jome said students have an incentive to self-report, because it could help them arrange for excused absences from class or their job.
So could Reditus, which also runs the Interstate Center site, just ask people who go there whether they’re affiliated with ISU?
“I did ask Reditus early on if they could do that, and there seemed to be no way to add that to their system,” Baur said. “We’re trying to do what we can to get those results.”
So far, ISU’s COVID outbreak appears to have peaked in late August and early September, with 100 or more positive test results reported on four separate days. Some hope last week’s headline-making visit from YouTube’s Nelk Boys—and the threats of student discipline that came after—was a wake-up call.
“I was disturbed. I was annoyed,” said Kosberg. “Most of us are trying hard to do the right thing. A lot of us are holding our friends accountable. I’ve talked to a lot of people who saw friends at the Nelk Boys (visit), and now they don’t even talk to them anymore. ‘I’m not gonna talk to them. I’m gonna report them.’ I was pretty disgusted.”
Jome, the ISU spokesperson, said “we’d like to think our message of following guidelines is sinking in.”
“And the fact that people did see large numbers (of cases), and hopefully that got people to take things seriously again,” he said. “We’re not going to take our eyes off this.”
ISU’s testing positivity rate (weekly average) has fallen from over 20% to 5.1% as of Wednesday.
Baur, ISU’s testing czar, said he wants to see more students get tested—and for that positivity rate to hold steady.
“I don’t want complacency to start becoming an issue with the positivity rate going down,” Baur said. “We still need to maintain social distancing, the masks. Don’t relax because the positivity rate is coming down. It’s coming down for those reasons.”
Baur said ISU’s data dashboard will be overhauled late this week or early next week. Instead of showing positive test results, it will show unique student cases. It will also separate recovered vs. active cases.
Illinois Newsroom’s Lee Gaines contributed to this report.
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