As universities across the country adopt different COVID-19 testing strategies, here is how WU’s plan stacks up

| Staff Reporter

In a year marred by the coronavirus pandemic, Washington University has been one of many colleges and universities nationwide to adopt plans to keep their student bodies safe and healthy. However, different strategies for testing and mitigation have yielded different results among many of WU’s peer institutions.

HN Hoffmann

The University began the academic year with a COVID-19 monitoring system involving five main components: entry testing, surveillance testing, daily self-screening, contact tracing and quarantine and isolation housing. Students who returned to St. Louis in mid-January were required to take the University’s PCR saliva test upon arrival and were asked to take an additional re-entry test one week later. Biweekly surveillance testing is expected to resume Feb. 8.

Although the University’s COVID plan has remained largely unchanged throughout the 2020-2021 school year, cases have surged exponentially nationwide since the fall, leaving many community members concerned about the University’s resistance to increasing testing frequency.

Dr. Cheri LeBlanc, the executive director at Habif Health and Wellness Center, has defended the University’s current biweekly testing frequency, arguing that “more frequent testing would be unlikely to make a significant difference.”

Still, students, parents and community members have challenged the University’s spring semester pandemic plan as daily COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the country and new virus mutations spread. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms the notion that frequent and abundant testing of individuals regardless of symptoms is crucial in preventing the spread of the virus.

This past summer, an analysis led by the California Institute of Technology on university reopening plans had approximated that around one in four universities planned to carry out entry testing, while one in five universities planned to incorporate regular testing into their pandemic response. Washington University falls into the minority in both of these areas.

Several peer institutions have taken more extensive measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on their campuses. Both Cornell University and Vanderbilt University require undergraduate students to undergo surveillance testing twice a week.

Northwestern University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University required students to quarantine for seven days upon arrival and will conduct weekly surveillance testing throughout the semester. The University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and Rice University have both significantly altered student experiences as well: UPenn implemented a three-week quiet period of no activities and Rice will have exclusively online instruction until mid-February.

Vice President of Public Affairs at Duke University Michael Schoenfeld described their plan’s key components, which involved frequent testing and frequent communication with students.

“We stayed focused on the mantra of ‘survive and advance,’” Schoenfeld said. “We were going to get to the next day or week and not try to outsmart the virus, which was always in control. We were going to make students, faculty and staff partners in this effort, and not shame them into ‘doing the right thing,’ and we were going to give people information, direction and, when feasible, options.”

Duke lies in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, a metropolitan area with a population roughly the same size as the population St. Louis metropolitan region. It has an undergraduate student body roughly the same size of Washington University, but has had 100 fewer cases.

Duke operated similarly to Washington University, particularly regarding communication strategies, limiting on-campus density, housing plans, promoting masking and physical distancing protocols and contact tracing.

However, Duke also attempted to improve communications with the student body by partnering with popular campus figures such as Coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke’s Men’s Basketball Team and University President Vincent Price to amplify messages.

Duke’s administration also compiled the University’s resources to administer tests for every student several times a week, pioneering a new “pool testing” plan which used data from group COVID-19 tests as well as other factors to determine where individual tests will be most effective.

“The testing was not random,” Schoenfeld said. “It was driven by daily analysis of data, so while every student was tested on average at least once a week, some were tested more frequently.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison was less successful, with a positivity rate three times higher than Washington University in the fall. To address their shortcomings, the administration began the new year with amendments to their COVID-19 plan.

“[This semester’s] new program will dramatically expand testing and the frequency that students, faculty and staff need to test,” Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at Wisconsin-Madison Dr. Lori Reesor said.

After expanding the capacity of testing facilities to meet demand, Wisconsin-Madison students no longer need appointments to get tested, unlike Washington University.

Only a few miles north of the Danforth campus, the University of Missouri-Saint Louis (UMSL) has an undergraduate student body double that of Washington University, but only recorded 324 cases last semester, forty fewer than Washington University.

Although there were similarities between UMSL’s and Washington University’s plans, specifically in the areas of hybrid education and frequent communications, UMSL responded quite differently to the regional spike that occurred late last year.

UMSL has also operated with a different testing philosophy to the University. Tests at UMSL are offered for those with symptoms and student-athletes must be regularly tested according to NCAA guidelines. However, all universities in the University of Missouri system, including UMSL, are not conducting general campus surveillance testing.

The frequency of surveillance tests being administered to Washington University undergraduates is higher than UMSL’s nonexistent plan, but is still comparatively low to peer institutions, especially given how some schools sought to increase their testing rates in 2021. As universities across the country kick off their semesters over the upcoming weeks, the effectiveness of their new testing plans will be revealed.

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