How 3 big universities stifled COVID on campus

Increases in testing allowed schools to respond to positive cases and combat outbreaks
By: | December 8, 2020

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign took on the even bigger task of using self-administered, saliva-based kits to test 50,000 students twice a week.

It paired that with an app the university developed an app, Safer Illinois, to notify students of test results quickly, said Martin Burke, associate dean of research at the university’s Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

Students also needed the app to get into campus buildings and local restaurants and bars. To gain entry, they had to show the app to confirm they were up-to-date on COVID testing and had not tested positive.

The university used data-modeling to guide its response. The approaches showed that had the university done nothing to prevent COVID, each infected person would spread the virus to three others.


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Twice-a-week testing cut that rate in half and requiring masks would keep the virus under control, Burke said.

“It like stacked layers of Swiss cheese,” he said. “Testing is not a silver bullet but it’s very powerful when combined with other approaches.”

By the end of the fall semester, the university’s positivity rate was .43% for 960,000 tests.

Headed into the spring, the university is planning a phased return, starting with first-years. Students will be required to test negative twice within four days to return, and administrators are considering restricting all non-essential activities for the first three weeks of the spring.

“We teamed up with student groups to present safe socialization options,” Burke said. “Students took the lead on finding ways to find way socialize safety.”

When students get complacent …

The Georgia Institute of Technology launched a MyTest website where students received results of own their tests and could monitor the campus positivity rate.

Students got results back in 24 to 48 hours, said Greg Gibson, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Integrative Genomics.

Each time cases ticked up, administrators intensified testing to stifle the spread.

“We were noticing students getting complacent, gathering in groups and less mask-wearing,” Gibson said. “Then Halloween happened middle … we saw a big rise. We redoubled testing efforts and got the rate down.”


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Unlike the first three schools, Purdue University in Indiana did not try to test everyone weekly, says David Broecker, the Purdue Research Foundation’s innovation and collaboration officer.

Purdue focused on positivity data and contract tracing to zero in on infections and stifle the spread, Broecker said.

The university also opened the Protect Purdue Health Center to serve as a hub for prevention and testing.