WUSM students call for access to asymptomatic testing, ‘feel pretty underappreciated’
Despite concerns expressed by students over the last several months, Washington University will not provide asymptomatic COVID-19 testing to graduate students, continuing its policy from the fall semester.
A Nov. 24 survey conducted by the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences (DBBS) Student Advisory Committee found that almost one third of respondents were actively uncomfortable being on campus due to the University’s COVID-19 policies, and two thirds believed that the policies needed more oversight.
“Current policy is that you can only get a test if you are showing symptoms of COVID, or if you’ve had contact with someone else who has a known case of COVID, and this is challenging because what we know about the disease—especially in age 20 to 30 individuals, which is a lot of our students—is that it can present as asymptomatic,” DBBS student Celine St. Pierre said. “So I personally have not been able to get a test after I thought I might have been exposed because I was asymptomatic, and I’ve heard that from many other students as well.”
“I’ve heard in some cases that sometimes confirmed exposure is not even enough for someone to get a test,” DBBS student Ryan Friedman said.
Friedman also described the lack of safeguards for previously positive students to return to campus. The current policy allows asymptomatic students to return to campus ten days after their positive test result, with no negative testing requirement.
“I know people who were poll workers on election day—number one, they couldn’t get a test, and number two, they were told they were allowed to come to the lab the next day,” Friedman said. “Sitting in a crowded room with hundreds of people coming in for 13 hours [is] a high risk situation, and yet it’s treated like nothing.”
One survey respondent reported being asked to return to their lab after working as a poll worker even though they felt uncomfortable doing so.
Another issue is that a student might live with someone who is exposed to COVID, but unless that person obtains a positive test result, the student will not meet the University’s testing criteria, St. Pierre explained.
“We’ve seen lots of peer institutions that have been implementing surveillance testing for everyone who’s coming to campus,” St. Pierre said. “And what we know about this disease now is that a lot of it can be asymptomatic. So I just question, how can you say that on-campus transmission has been low when we aren’t testing a lot of people who are on campus?”
The University’s stated justification for not “performing more tests on asymptomatic individuals than are needed” is that this type of testing could result in false positives leading to unnecessary isolation and quarantine, as well as false negatives that could generate less vigilance in following masking and distancing guidelines.
“The justification of ‘We’re only going to test you once you know you’re at risk’ is kind of akin to saying that the only way to not get pregnant or not get an STI is abstinence…that ignores the reality of the situation and people’s behaviors,” Friedman said.
Friedman pointed out that students who live alone should be able to isolate in a bubble with a few other people for the sake of their mental health, and regular testing could help to make this as safe as possible.
“I would hope that if we can trust scientists and physicians to come to work and be safe, we should also be able to trust them to not do anything more risky or dangerous just because they get a negative test,” he said.
In order to fulfill their responsibilities, students may have to experience other risks of exposure, such as students without a car taking the metro to get to their lab, Friedman added.
At the end of November, Dean of the School of Medicine David Perlmutter announced that all WUSM staff and faculty would receive a $750 bonus as a token of “institutional heartfelt thanks.”
Many DBBS student workers feel that they should also receive this bonus, according to St. Pierre and Friedman.
“DBBS students feel pretty underappreciated, because we were deemed essential employees at the start of all this in order to keep coming to campus and doing what we needed to do in order to keep labs’ research agendas going,” she said. “Even while we had to shut down…and drastically reduce operations, there were still things that needed to keep going, and grad students and postdocs were largely the people doing that.”
Friedman agreed, saying that while he acknowledged the University’s financial constraints, student workers deserved the same recognition given to faculty and staff.