On these campuses and some others, a rapidly intensifying hunt is underway to find students who are carrying a dangerous pathogen but don’t know it. Mass testing centers are popping up in stadiums and parking lots and under the shade of tents as students line up to fulfill their public health duty. The outcome of the quest could help determine whether residence halls remain open in the fall term and at least some face-to-face teaching survives.
Yet a growing number of universities in recent weeks have learned that these measures are not enough to sustain in-person teaching amid a pandemic that has killed more than 180,000 Americans and sickened many more. Spikes in cases have led schools such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to retreat to online instruction and empty much of their campus housing.
“You’ve got to add something else,” said Carl T. Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington. “And what’s that going to be? Proactive testing.”
Some schools are even testing dormitory sewage for traces of the virus.
But many colleges and universities are taking minimal steps to monitor asymptomatic students for the virus that causes covid-19. Huge discrepancies in cost and access to laboratories and supplies mean testing regimens vary widely around the country. Often, testing is required only for those who have fever, cough, chills, shortness of breath or other symptoms.
Over the summer, a group of faculty members and students from the California Institute of Technology and elsewhere analyzed reopening plans from about 500 colleges and universities. They reported on Aug. 11 that 27 percent of schools were planning to test undergraduates as they enter campus. About 20 percent planned “to test their communities regularly to some extent.” The vast majority, in other words, did not.
Lior Pachter, a professor of computational biology at Caltech who participated in the analysis, called those findings “very troubling.” He said the data suggested many colleges were clinging to “an unrealistic belief, a kind of fiction, that people would come back to campus and not get sick.”
The federal government has largely left colleges to chart their own path on asymptomatic testing.
In late June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it did not recommend colleges test all students, faculty and staff for the virus upon entry to campus because there were no systematic studies to show the effectiveness of that policy. However, the CDC added that colleges in areas with “moderate to substantial community transmission” of the virus might consider testing some or all asymptomatic students to identify outbreaks. Some wealthy private colleges are doing that.
Aggressive testing is not easy to carry out on a large scale.
George Mason, which has about 38,000 students and is Virginia’s largest public university, learned that when it sought to test undergraduates before they arrived on the Fairfax County campus. Students received test kits at home and were asked to collect specimens using throat swabs. The specimens were sent to labs, and proof of a negative test result was required for more than 3,000 undergrads who moved into the dorms.
Faculty critics said the test kits lacked authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for home specimen collection — a charge that an associate dean of research for the university’s college of science later confirmed was true. The critics also contended that vials within the kits labeled “for research use only” had created confusion and that, overall, quality controls were inadequate.
“This isn’t a strep test,” Bethany Letiecq, president of George Mason’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “It’s a Covid test. This is about public health and safety. People are fearful and deserve more than this.”
George Mason President Gregory Washington said the testing had delivered reliable information, including positive results for a few students who were thus kept off campus while infected.
“Clearly, this is not a perfect solution,” he acknowledged in an email to the campus. “Perfection simply does not exist. We have no relevant precedent, and we are doing everything we can to safely operate this university while delivering the best educational experience possible.” But Washington pledged improvements.
After the first day of classes Aug. 24, the university switched to on-campus testing with closer oversight. Of 390 students tested in the first week of the semester, the university found seven infections. Officials plan to ramp up to 850 tests a week in an effort to help the school continue to offer a mix of face-to-face and online classes.
At College Park, U-Md. officials delayed in-person teaching for undergraduates two weeks, until Sept. 14, to allow expansion of viral testing. The fall term launched Aug. 31 online at the 40,000-student public university.
U-Md. required all students living on campus to get tested before and after arrival. It also mandated testing for students who live nearby and come onto campus for classes or events.
One sign of the upside-down nature of the pandemic semester: The Terrapins won’t be playing football this fall at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium. But plenty of students queued up there Tuesday at a makeshift testing center next to the concession stands.
Shamar Jackson, 23, a junior from District Heights, Md., tilted his head back as a nursing student put a swab into his nostrils to collect a specimen for analysis. For him, it was an astounding way to start the school year.
“It’s really kind of scary, when you think about it,” Jackson said afterward. “It’s my first pandemic.”
Natalie Kelley, 21, a senior from Clarksville, Md., said she was glad to get tested.
“I don’t want to get sick,” she said. “I hope to visit my family at some point in the semester, and I don’t want them to get sick.”
In the week ending Aug. 29, U-Md. administered 4,982 coronavirus tests. All but 19 came back negative.
But cases have crept upward in recent days. The student news outlet the Diamondback reported Thursday that U-Md. athletics had paused all workouts after tests found 46 positive cases across 10 teams.
On Thursday, U-Md. had 64 students in quarantine or isolation, more than four times the total Aug. 31. But most of the 285 bedrooms it set aside for those purposes were still available. By early October, plans call for testing 1,500 people on campus each week.
“It is important that we understand and track the presence of COVID-19 in our community,” U-Md. President Darryll J. Pines said in a statement, “and we must continue to test for coronavirus in order to curb the spread.”
No public university is testing more extensively, experts say, than the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There, researchers have developed a test that omits swabs — saving considerable expense.
Students drool saliva into a sterile tube, and the contents are then examined with a polymerase chain reaction technique considered the gold standard for virus detection. Results can be delivered within hours, the university says, much faster than other tests, which can take days to process. That gives the university, which has more than 51,000 students on its flagship campus, an invaluable edge in efforts to isolate the virus before it spreads. At stake is the university’s ability to teach in hybrid fashion, with some classes in person.
“This is a game-changer,” said Robert J. Jones, the university’s chancellor. “We needed a very robust, rigorous testing regimen.”
Commercial labs often charge $100 or more per coronavirus test. George Mason is paying $52 per test. U-Md. is paying about $40 per test through an arrangement with the University of Maryland at Baltimore. For Illinois, using its own methods and labs, the cost is about $10 to $14 per test.
The bottom line for Urbana-Champaign: Officials say it can afford hundreds of thousands of tests this fall. The goal is to reach every student and employee twice a week. On Aug. 31, the university reported 17,227 test results, with 230 indicating new cases of the virus.
Urbana-Champaign officials worry about rising case counts. On Wednesday, they said in a mass email that “irresponsible actions of a small number of students have created the very real possibility of ending an in-person semester for all of us.” They told students to halt all but essential activities for two weeks and avoid social gatherings “under any circumstance.”
Whether Illinois succeeds or not, others are drawn to its methods. The University of Wyoming, which opened the year mainly online, plans to use the saliva test Illinois developed as it shifts in coming weeks to in-person teaching.
Wyoming President Ed Seidel said it was a “very difficult decision” to open in stages.
“There were a lot of pressures,” he said. “It’s very important to the people of Wyoming and the state that we have an in-person experience.”
Twice-weekly testing will make that possible, he said.
Indiana University is running about 10,000 tests a week across its campuses after an all-out testing blitz when the school year began. It plans to pick up the pace with a shift to the Illinois saliva test method, according to IU President Michael McRobbie, another example of fast-changing responses nationwide to the pandemic.
“There are a lot of different strategies out there,” McRobbie said. “We’re going to know in the next few weeks which ones are working and which ones aren’t. Hopefully we’ll get it right.”