As someone who dedicated my summer to working as a case investigator for my state health department and spent hours each day telling people how to stay healthy in the midst of a global pandemic, I really can’t stress enough how flawed our campus testing strategy is.
Now that many of us have returned to campus, I have already seen students breaking the COVID-19 guidelines or only following guidance partially. I get it — there is this perception on campus that we’ve all been tested and everybody is negative and we are a perfect little bubble, right? Now that we all have negative test results, we can hug our friends and have little gatherings in our basements with less than ten people and take cute pictures with our friends, right? Actually, no.
Why not? The testing strategy that we used — test everyone and quarantine them while they wait for their test results — makes no sense by public health standards because those tests are just a snapshot in time, and they may not capture the presence of the virus if you were exposed recently. According to Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, the incubation period for the virus is two to 14 days, and on average is around four to six days. What does that mean? It means that if you were exposed two days before coming to campus, it wouldn’t necessarily show up on your test, because there isn’t enough active virus to be detected. It means, on average, if you were exposed four days ago, it still might not show up on your test. A negative test result doesn’t mean you are free of COVID-19; it means that there was not enough active virus built up in your system at the time of the test.
Now, if we knew that everybody had been able to fully self-quarantine for two weeks before coming to campus, and had no potential exposures during their travel here, this testing strategy would work. However, a lot of our students come from far away, some on airplanes or buses where they cannot necessarily control or limit their exposure to other people. And, as discussed above, those people who might have been exposed in the two days before coming back wouldn’t test positive, even if they might have caught the virus and will become infectious in a few days.
Of course, this isn’t the students’ fault; it’s a flaw in the institutional plan and a major failure in communication. Your roommate, or your best friend in the entire world who you trust and just know is following the rules, or your sports team, or the people you eat with in Lowry could all potentially be carrying the virus all while thinking that they’re negative and totally safe.
That’s why this testing strategy doesn’t make sense. We have told students that it’s okay and safe for them to eat in Lowry, with masks off, not socially distanced, all while knowing that there’s a high level of uncertainty as to whether students might be carrying the virus and knowing that talking and eating with masks off carries a high risk of transmission. If I’m being honest, Lowry is a public health hazard. I avoid it as much as possible, and primarily get my food to-go and take it back to my
room to eat during my Zoom meetings. I know that’s not convenient, but I would recommend that others
do the same when they have the ability to do so.
To act like it is the students’ fault if we have an outbreak would be wildly unfair when the conditions are set up so recklessly. The fact that we haven’t had an outbreak yet — between the way Lowry is functioning and the way our testing was implemented — is pure luck. We know campus is not a COVID-free bubble, so why are we treating Lowry as if social distancing and mask-wearing just stops being important while students are eating? It is an institutional decision that is not only flawed, but also dangerous.
We need another dining space open so that students can eat while socially distanced, or Lowry should have half the seating capacity with the rest as to-go only. In my opinion, we should all be tested again two weeks from the date that the last students arrived on campus. I know that won’t happen,
so, until then, I anxiously await the start of the satellite testing promised in the most recent email update from the administration.