Editor’s Note Episode 18: Testing Expansion
In response to recent increases of student cases, Washington University made walk-in COVID-19 testing available at the Mudd Field testing tent for all undergraduate and graduate students on Monday, March 22. In this week’s episode, freshman Kamala Madireddi discusses the current state of COVID cases and testing with Senior News Editor junior Ted Moskal and Associate Editor junior Matthew Friedman. Theme music by Copy Chief JJ Coley.
KAMALA MADIREDDI (0:09-1:40): Decreasing COVID-19 rates and a slowly-improving vaccine rollout here in the St. Louis area are signs of better days ahead. But that doesn’t mean the pandemic is over on the Washington University campus, as new cases are caught every day.
In response to recent increases of cases, the University made walk-in COVID testing available at the Mudd Field testing tent for all undergraduate and graduate students on Monday, March 22. The decision to expand access to testing also comes as a growing number of students are choosing to get tested off-campus outside the biweekly mandatory surveillance testing.
I’m Kamala Madireddi, and you’re listening to Editor’s Note, Student Life’s weekly podcast breaking down our biggest stories with the reporters and editors that covered them.
I talked with Senior News Editor junior Ted Moskal and Associate Editor junior Matthew Friedman, who reported on the expansion of access to COVID testing on campus.
Moskal noted that Executive Director of Habif Health and Wellness Center Dr. Cheri LeBlanc explained why the University decided to expand testing access now and not earlier in the year. Many students and parents have called on the University to expand testing since the fall.
TED MOSKAL (1:41- 2:12): Through the old system without this testing, people who should have been quarantined were not identified. And this was a result of a couple different factors. People were getting tested at outside facilities. And also people were just not cooperating with contact tracers. And what this had led to was that, although cases in the St. Louis area are kind of trending downwards, cases on the Wash. U. campus were trending upwards. So this program is basically just meant to fill in the holes in the old testing program and make sure that people who should be in quarantine are identified and then put in quarantine.
KM (2:13-2:18): Friedman also noted why the University had not agreed to previous calls for testing expansion.
MATTHEW FRIEDMAN (2:19-2:53): One thing we’ve heard a lot from people like Steven Lawrence at the [School of Medicine] is that the University believed for a long time that doing anything more than once every two weeks surveillance testing would give students that kind of false sense of security. And when we started the spring semester, what they did was they said, “Hey, if we need to increase our capacity, we have that option. We can always do that later on, if we need to.” So, I think that that is what we’re seeing with this new walk-in testing policy this week. They’re taking advantage of that opportunity that they had allowed themselves early in the semester. Do you think that’s fair, Ted?
TM (2:54-3:18): Yeah, I think that’s fair. And when I had written to Dr. LeBlanc, she told me that they still consider the fact that students after getting tested are more likely to engage in reckless behavior. That’s a justification they’ve used, as you mentioned Matthew, for the entire fall and parts of the spring. And that’s a factor they’re still considering. It’s just that they think, in this case, the benefits of making that decision and giving students access to walk-in testing outweigh the negatives and the downsides.
KM (3:19-3:32): In the article, Dr. LeBlanc mentioned that students have also been less willing to comply with contact tracing procedures in the past few weeks. Why do you think this issue is happening now rather than earlier in the year?
TM (3:33-3:58): I think students are tired and stressed. And they want to socialize, and being quarantined for two weeks is not a super pleasant experience. So if you have the possibility to go to CVS and get tested or just not cooperate with contact tracers in general, that’s an appealing option for some people who maybe don’t have the best priorities in mind. But there are factors that people consider, and I think that’s why we’re seeing this uptick in lack of cooperation with contact tracers.
MF (3:59-4:35): I think another part of it is the fact that a lot more of these cases are coming from students who are breaking rules before they even get to the contact tracing part of these health processes and protocols. There have been, as we talked about on this podcast a couple weeks ago when you and Orli were on here, Ted, a lot of off-campus clusters. People have that in mind and they know, ‘All right, maybe we shouldn’t have done this, maybe I shouldn’t have gone to the party last weekend.’ And I think that they’re aware that they might face consequences in terms of the student conduct process. So I think that might also be a reason, Kamala, why people are not following through with the contact tracing.
TM (4:36-4:55): To add to that, something the University has done to encourage students to come forward if they’ve broken the rules and tested positive for COVID is they’ve really emphasized the fact that the contact tracing process and the disciplinary process for COVID violations and student conduct are two very separate places…. Although obviously that perception is still there.
MF (4:56-5:06): Right, I think it’s one thing for them to emphasize that over and over again and for students to actually absorb that and to understand that it’s still okay to come forward in a contact tracing procedure.
KM (5:07-5:26): Friedman interviewed students outside the Mudd Field testing tent on Monday, March 22, the first day of walk-in testing. He observed that the reaction to the policy was highly positive, as it would help decrease the stress of getting COVID and increase testing accessibility and flexibility for students.
MF (5:27-6:18): What kept coming up in those conversations…was that they don’t necessarily think the University has done a bad job of keeping students safe this semester, but they did all agree that this was a policy, this new walk-in testing program, that should have been in place for a long time. And I think that’s something that echoes a lot of what Student Life has been reporting. Whether it’s Orli’s reporting about how the parents have been saying, “Wait, why are all these other universities having their students tested two or three times a week and we’re only having our students tested bi-weekly?” or whether it’s any of the other concerns that people have had about the testing system. I think that it echoed that. And there is a feeling that this should have happened earlier, even though people aren’t necessarily blaming the University for the current rise in cases. So I think that’s an interesting dichotomy there.
KM (6:24-6:32): Editor’s Note will be back next week to break down another developing story. For Student Life Media, I’m Kamala Madireddi.