Parents, students call for increased COVID-19 testing and transparency in spring semester

Orli Sheffey | News Editor

With Washington University’s COVID-19 testing policies remaining largely unchanged from the fall semester, parents and students have called for more frequent COVID-19 testing and increased transparency for the spring semester.

Curran Neenan | Student Life

Consistent with the fall plan, undergraduate students have been required to undergo entry testing upon arrival and will begin biweekly surveillance testing with the University’s PCR saliva test on Feb. 1. At any point in the semester, students, faculty and staff who present symptoms or who are contact traced have access to diagnostic testing. Public health requirements, including universal masking, physical distancing, daily self-screening and personal hygiene will continue to be enforced.

Since Aug. 1, 224 undergraduate students, 76 graduate students and 159 faculty and staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

After receiving an email from Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Rob Wild on Jan. 15 revealing that testing policies would not change, parents Arturo Cázares and Suzanne Jacobs authored a petition to the administration and Board of Trustees.

“This is a very risky time, as the beginning of the second semester coincides with both the highest hospitalization and death rates of the pandemic, and, equally concerning, the emergence of Covid mutations that are much more contagious,” the petition read.

The petition called for surveillance testing twice a week for all students, faculty and staff throughout the semester. Additionally, it requested two re-entry tests (one at arrival and one five days later), self-isolation until the second re-entry test result comes back negative and consideration of online classes for the first two weeks. Cázares and Jacobs garnered more than 240 signatures through the Facebook group “WashU Parents – Covid-19 info exchange,” which now includes approximately 1,100 parents.

Cázares and Jacobs pointed to national experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the President Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor, who advocated for ongoing “surveillance testing every few days” on college campuses, and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, incoming CDC director and Washington University alumna, who co-authored a JAMA report arguing that colleges need to test students every two days to prevent outbreaks. Moreover, the American College Health Association recommends that colleges test students twice per week.

Dr. Cheri LeBlanc, executive director of Habif Health and Wellness, wrote in a statement to Student Life that “all expert panels, the American College Health Association, the National Academies of Science and Engineering Medicine and Dr. Fauci have said that the strategies a University chooses need to match the needs and circumstances of that particular institution.”

Wild agreed, saying, “With all due respect to Dr. Fauci, and I know he’s been a great national leader, we are really trying to focus on our own data and evidence here in St. Louis and on campus as well as our physicians who are advising us on this to do the right thing strategy-wise.”

LeBlanc wrote that infectious disease experts on the University’s COVID Monitoring Team reviewed many studies to find an “ideal” surveillance testing frequency, along with data from the campus and surrounding community. She argued that many studies did not include other mitigation efforts such as masking and physical distancing.

“Each of the public health measures in our strategy has a proportional impact of reducing this number. Universal masking brings it down by at least 30-50%, physical distancing another 30-50%,” LeBlanc wrote. “That leaves testing to reduce the reproduction number by 10-20%, which can be done with a 14 day interval…More frequent testing would be unlikely to make a significant difference.”

Parents are continuing to look to COVID plans on similar college campuses, questioning the major differences in testing protocols.

“If testing twice a week is seen as unnecessary as a mitigation strategy, then why are the majority of peer institutions using it and why is frequent testing one of the cornerstones of the American College Health Association?” parent Kit Bix asked.

Peer institutions such as Cornell University, Duke University, Rice University, Vanderbilt University, University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University, Tufts University, Princeton University, Northeastern University, Tulane University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conduct surveillance testing of undergraduate students at least twice a week. Many of those institutions also required more than one re-entry test and extended surveillance testing to graduate students, faculty and staff.

“Parents can’t understand why Wash. U. is such an outlier on this and why they’re actually making arguments against more testing,” Cázares said. “Everyone else sees value in frequent testing.”

Both Wild and Dr. Steve Lawrence, an infectious disease expert at the University, have said that testing students too frequently can “psychologically create a false sense of security” due to the possibility of false negatives.

“I just find that argument really weak,” Bix said. “Wash. U. has really smart and capable students, so they understand the logic of false negatives.”

Wild and LeBlanc have indicated that if the situation changes, they could increase the frequency of surveillance testing. LeBlanc wrote that an increase in testing would be based on St. Louis Metropolitan area case statistics, along with campus statistics and the capacity at nearby hospitals—all metrics that the COVID Monitoring Team analyzes daily.

“We could add in a minute’s notice increased surveillance testing, but we don’t believe that’s warranted right now going into the semester, based on the guidance that we received from our colleagues,” Wild said.

“We are working seven days a week, carefully monitoring the situation and are ready to pivot and change our strategy if we need to,” LeBlanc wrote.

Parents, however, have been frustrated by this response from the administration and have called for a proactive approach to surveillance testing, rather than a reactive approach.

“The beginning of the semester is when you need to be most aggressive in testing and other mitigation strategies,” Bix said. “Students are coming from all over the country, there are new variants that are much more transmissible [and] most students have not done rigorous testing at home, so mixing them all together makes the worst possible situation. We shouldn’t just wait and see and then change protocol.”

“The philosophy of ‘We’re flexible; if it gets bad we’ll pivot,’ is telling us parents that they will let a certain number of our beloved children get sick,” Jacobs said. “How many kids getting sick would it take before they increase testing? 100? 150? I don’t want my kid to be part of that 100 or 150.”

Students who support increased testing have also argued that it would help mitigate anxiety and improve mental health.

“Getting tested more frequently would help calm my nerves,” freshman Justin Lewitus said. “The fact that testing was not very routine last semester, just every two weeks, meant that every test was more stressful.”

Junior Jade Leslie added that more communication and transparency are needed.

“I know that they have to work really hard to make all the decisions, but more upfront communication would help,” Leslie said.

Cázares said that a more transparent COVID-19 dashboard and more frequent communication from the administration regarding the data collected would improve the mental of the community. Unlike many peer institutions, the University does not publish the number of tests collected each day or the number of students in quarantine, and they do not consistently provide commentary on the data.

“If they’re transparent about the numbers and where there are cases, which dorms, students can do a better job of taking care of themselves,” Jacobs said.

“We’re all on the same side here,” Bix said. “We all want the same thing, which is the safety and health of the students and the community.”

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