More than 4,000 undergraduate students from around the country will return to the University of Pennsylvania in late August. But first, they will have to pass a test — for the coronavirus.
Using a kit mailed to them, each student will send back a saliva sample that will be analyzed to rule out infection. And when the students arrive on Penn’s West Philadelphia campus, they will all be tested again. There will be still more testing after that — plus a 35-member in-house team of contact tracers who will find those who had contact with people known to have the virus and advise them to isolate.
Penn is going above and beyond local and national recommendations for testing, a decision it made to protect both the campus and its community, officials said.
“Our conclusion was, we definitely will be faulted if we don’t do enough,” said Benoit Dubé, Penn associate provost and chief wellness officer. “We may annoy people if we do more, but we will not be faulted for taking extra steps.”
The testing protocols are part of plans being developed by universities nationwide to prevent virus outbreaks on campuses or in communities. The plans also include mask-wearing, social distancing, and on-campus space for quarantining those who test positive or had contact with someone who did.
It’s a herculean and costly task for colleges, and it holds no guarantee of protection. Schools must do the work themselves or contract with a vendor at an average cost that can range from $25 to $35 per test to as much as $100.
Plans vary considerably by campus, in terms of who will be tested, how often, under what circumstances, and when.
Pennsylvania State University will administer saliva tests to 30,000 students and staff coming to campus from places where infection rates are high. After that, the almost 100,000-student university, with 24 campuses, will test 1% of asymptomatic students and staff daily.
At Swarthmore College, a smaller campus in Delaware County, all 900 students expected to live there this fall will be tested when they arrive, then again the following week and the week after that. If enough positives are found, the weekly testing will likely continue, the college said.
Some schools, including Villanova and Drexel Universities, will require on-campus faculty and staff to be tested before they return, in addition to students.
Others are not planning a blanket testing approach.
Rutgers, in New Jersey, will test students living in university housing and others at higher risk of contracting and spreading the virus. “We have the ability to conduct as many as 10,000 tests per day,” said Dory Devlin, a Rutgers spokesperson.
Other colleges, including La Salle University in Philadelphia and Widener University in Chester, will focus testing on those who show symptoms.
There’s no simple answer to just how much testing is needed.
“I don’t want to say there’s one best approach, because I don’t think we know,” said Sarah Fortune, chair of the department of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard’s school of public health. “But there are some basic principles. One is that some form of ongoing testing is going to be important.”
Entry testing, she said, only provides a snapshot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not recommended it, saying the method hasn’t been studied or proven to reduce transmission. Neither has the Philadelphia Public Health Department.
“Testing should be offered to people who are displaying symptoms or have been exposed to a confirmed case,” said James Garrow, a department spokesperson.
Some students want more.
Matthew Rantz, a Drexel junior, said that in addition to testing all students before arrival, tests should be conducted later in the semester, especially because the school is located in an urban area.
“I’d want to be extra sure the transmission of the virus hasn’t significantly increased among the student population,” he said.
He said he has no problem being tested. Neither does Arielle Gedeon, a senior and the student government president at Rowan University in Glassboro. Gedeon said her peers understand that following safety protocols means being able to have an on-campus experience.
“We know that’s what we have to do,” she said.
The issue has been much discussed among faculty concerned about the safety of resuming in-person classes. At Penn State, a faculty group, Coalition for a Just University, has written to Gov Tom Wolf about its concerns. After hearing the university’s testing plan this week, the group said it’s not enough. All students should be tested shortly before or upon arrival, faculty said, and testing 1% of students and staff daily is insufficient. Some schools, including Harvard, will test all undergraduates every few days.
During a one-hour virtual town hall meeting Thursday, Penn State administrators also said they will employ a team of 36 contact tracers and have designated dorms for quarantine. The school also will test samples from residents’ wastewater. It even plans to use scratch and sniff cards to check whether students have lost their sense of smell, a symptom of the coronavirus.
Temple University hasn’t yet released a testing plan.
“What definitely would not make me comfortable is if we were only testing people who have symptoms when there is clearly asymptomatic transmission,” said Nancy Pleshko, a Temple bioengineering professor.
Some faculty have noted that testing alone isn’t enough and that wait times for test results can be a week or more, likely too long to stop significant spread. Several campuses in the region, including Lafayette College in Easton and Dickinson College in Carlisle, scrapped plans for in-person classes earlier this month in part because of testing lags.
“It’s reasonable to include testing in a return-to-campus plan, but the effectiveness of testing, sadly, is currently limited,” said Brian DeHaven, a virologist and assistant professor at La Salle. “In my classrooms, I’m more concerned with low-tech approaches that we know make a big difference. Things like assigned seating for contact tracing, and making sure every student is wearing a face covering and has access to hand sanitizer, are my top priorities.”
A university like Penn, which has a large health system, doesn’t have to worry as much about testing lags. With the exception of the initial mail-home test, it will do its own testing, said Dubé, the wellness officer.
After entry testing, students, faculty, and staff will be asked to check in daily online and report if they have symptoms or have been in contact with someone who is sick, he said. If they have, they will be blocked from entering Penn buildings and asked to take additional steps, including possibly getting tested.
Since March, 176 students have tested as confirmed or probable cases, five of them since July 15, said Ashlee Halbritter, director of campus health. Most of the recent positives were traced to travel or eating with friends, she said. They’ve occurred while the campus has largely been shut, with most students at home.
This fall, 4,095 undergraduates will live in campus housing, about three-quarters of the norm. They all will be in single rooms. Initially, Penn was expecting 4,500, but almost 400 opted out in the last week, as Penn has emphasized that campus life will be dramatically altered. The university announced Friday that the vast majority of instruction will be online, given rising case counts.
“It’s not going to be a normal college experience this year,” Halbritter said.
Dubé expects even more students to opt out before the arrival date.
“We want to be as honest as possible with our students so they don’t have buyer’s remorse,” Dube said.