Less than one percent of WU students test positive for COVID-19 during pre-arrival and entry testing

| Staff Reporter
An orange box sits on a wooden surface with a pool in the background

A kit containing two COVID-19 Antigen tests sits on a table. These kits were sent to all Washington University students for the purpose of entry testing. (Photo by Nina Giraldo | Student Life)

Washington University students conducted a total of 20,075 at-home pre-arrival and entry COVID-19 tests this semester, yielding positivity rates of less than 1% for each round of testing.

According to Executive Director of the Habif Health and Wellness Center Dr. Cheri LeBlanc, there were 134 positive tests: 44 pre-arrival tests and 90 entry tests completed after students had returned to St. Louis. Students who tested positive in their pre-arrival test did not come to campus, and many of the students who tested positive upon entry lived off campus and did not need to use the University’s on-campus isolation housing, LeBlanc said.

The University warned in a series of emails sent to students throughout January that failure to submit entry tests by Feb. 4 “may result in administrative withdrawal from your courses, and [students] would not be allowed to enroll for the duration of the spring 2022 semester.”

According to Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Rob Wild, students were “incredibly compliant” with the entry testing system, as fewer than 40 out of 12,592 undergraduate, graduate and professional students had failed to submit their tests as of Feb. 8. 

“Each individual academic program is currently reviewing those few remaining students to determine if they are here and will un-enroll those who are not compliant later this week,” Wild wrote in an email to Student Life Tuesday.

Wild noted the “many unique situations our students are facing,” including international students having difficulty returning to the United States and students participating in remote study, adding that the University does not want to un-enroll students who are not in St. Louis.

LeBlanc wrote that the lower than expected positivity rate affirms the University’s decision to delay in-person classes by two weeks. “Universities that saw their students return when Omicron cases were still rapidly rising in their communities and across the country experienced much higher case numbers than we did here at WashU,” she wrote. 

Northwestern University, for example, had students return to campus in early January and reported a 5.5% positivity rate from 16,409 tests during the week of January 3, according to The Daily Northwestern, despite having a two-week quarantine period with virtual classes. Dartmouth College reported a 13.5% positivity rate from 9,167 tests during the week of January 17, according to its COVID-19 dashboard.

The idea of having students complete entry testing is “one that is very widely advocated for, including [by] the CDC itself…for institutes of higher learning,” according to Dr. Steven Lawrence, one of the University’s top infectious disease experts. Because campuses tend to see an influx of cases as students return from breaks, entry testing helps “identify people as soon as they walk on campus, then you’ll be able to lower the peak of that initial spike when it occurs,” Lawrence said.

The pre-arrival testing, however, was done because of the higher contagiousness of the omicron variant. The University predicted that the peak would occur around Jan. 18, when spring semester classes were slated to begin in person. “We were concerned that, with as explosive as omicron was, if we brought everybody back right at that time, we would run out of resources,” Lawrence said. “However, we still anticipated there would be a lot of cases and a lot of transmission. By doing pre-arrival testing, that would identify some people who were infected before coming onto campus so that they would be able to ride out the isolation period at home.”

Washington University’s mitigation strategies this semester will largely remain the same, Lawrence said, with vaccinations, masking indoors and staying home while experiencing symptoms remaining the most important measures. “When everybody’s masking indoors transmission is exceedingly rare, even with omicron…It’s extremely rare, but when it happens, it’s always in the setting where somebody has symptoms,” Lawrence explained.

Because of this trend, Lawrence stressed the importance of completing the COVID-19 daily self-screening so that students do not come to class with symptoms until they have been evaluated and tested. “[After] a year and a half of operating the undergraduate campus, we don’t have any known instances where there has been transmission from an asymptomatic person to another person when everybody’s masked. We can’t definitively say that has never happened…[but] we have not yet come across a situation where it’s highly likely that transmission occurred in a setting where everybody was masked and the source was asymptomatic,” Lawrence said. 

Lawrence said that the University has recently shifted to recommend disposable isolation masks. 

“Even the cloth masks have been successful, but this just gives a little extra reassurance” given the variability of cloth masks and consistency of isolation masks, he said. 

Over 130 mask dispensers have been installed across Danforth Campus following guidance from the COVID Medical Advisory Group, which provides medical and infectious disease public health recommendations for University leaders.

The shift in testing patterns has led to the temporary suspension of the COVID-19 Dashboard because the dashboard only showed results from tests obtained through the University and Barnes Jewish/Christian HealthCare. “Since omicron hit, we’ve had now more than half of the students that test positive test at home or through some outside location, so what was being shown on the dashboard wasn’t a true reflection of disease activity,” Lawrence said. 

Going forward, Lawrence said that in the absence of major changes, such as a new variant, he is cautiously optimistic that transmission will drop to pre-omicron levels.

“I think we’re likely to see a lot of change over the next few months across the world, the country, the states, our own campus. We’re likely to see quite a bit of change in how we all collectively think about and respond to COVID,” Lawrence said. 

LeBlanc wrote that going forward, she expects to see a small bump in cases.

“If we then continue to see a decrease in the number of active cases on campus, it should have a favorable effect on our mitigation efforts,” she wrote. “We need to remember, however, that community rates and transmissions also influence our mitigation strategies, and those numbers remain substantially high.”

Amid those high community rates and transmissions, Lawrence said that the escape from COVID will not be quick. “Even when we do develop a new normal — there’s a general consensus that we have moved from a pandemic to an endemic phase — it is not going to mean that we just forget about COVID altogether,” he said. “It just means that we will be able to have a gradual and scaled, stepwise reduction in mitigation measures. We’re still going to want to hold onto some of the principles that have kept us safe so far, like not coming to class or work with symptoms.”

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