Frequent COVID testing still vital to keep colleges safe

Even with vaccine rollout, leaders at the University of Illinois say testing is the key piece in mitigating COVID-19.
By: | March 30, 2021
Photo courtesy of University of Illinois/Fred Zwicky

Vaccines are rolling out in earnest, with college leaders expecting the majority of students to get them before the fall semester. Still, there are no assurances that all of them will, and that means institutions will need to fall back on measures they used to get through a difficult 2020-21 academic year.

On their own, protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 are not enough to safely reopen campuses, according to a new study done by researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of California, Berkeley.

They say the best strategy – done in tandem with those measures – is fast and frequent surveillance testing for coronavirus, which has helped to stem potential outbreaks and kept positivity rates low at colleges and universities that have employed it, including Urbana-Champaign.

The study done of 86 institutions of higher education and led by Illinois business professors Ujjal Kumar Mukherjee and Sridhar Seshadri, noted that rapid testing has provided a more surefire controlling outcome for mitigating spread of the virus.

“Preventative measures such as mask wearing, social distancing and reduction of contact rates among individuals are indispensable to even consider reopening,” the authors concluded in the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports. “Such measures are vital to reduce the potency of asymptomatic transmission. Contact tracing is not enough to contain the infection spread. Even though testing infrastructure is expensive, bulk testing capabilities are crucial to contain the disease.”

The University of Illinois (with 448 cases just weeks after reopening) and many other large institutions (Alabama: 972, the University of North Carolina: 835, the University of Central Florida: 727 and Texas A&M: 500) saw spread occurring shortly after they reopened in the fall of 2020, even with masks and social distancing. But once testing and contact tracing ramped up, colleges and universities were able to better get a handle on those outbreaks … and isolate those who were infected.

Putting up a SHIELD

For Illinois, its own SHIELD test has been an invaluable tool in the fight, as well as in its reopening strategy. Thanks to SHIELD and the likely dispensing of vaccines to the bulk of its students, Illinois (which has administered more than a million tests across its campuses) is confidently planning to add more in-person instruction in the fall. Other universities, such as Monmouth in New Jersey, that are utilizing SHIELD are going fully in person to start the 2021-22 academic year.

“Barring a marked change in the pandemic’s current trajectory, we intend to welcome students back to a more traditional, more personal campus experience next fall,” University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen said in a statement. “I am proud that the U of I community played a key role in making it happen – from our brilliant researchers in Urbana-Champaign who created covidSHIELD to our dedicated healthcare team in Chicago that hosted trials for vaccines to Springfield faculty who shared their leading-edge expertise in hybrid learning.”

The highly accurate SHIELD test, which requires a simple saliva drop, provides a 24-hour lab turnaround for results.

“The of the testing cycle appears even more important than test sensitivity (within reasonable limits),” study authors said. “Therefore, institutions considering reopening must invest in COVID-testing for its members that is cost-effective, easy to administer in high volumes, and has a quick turnaround time to results. You would rather have tests that give quick results less accurately than more accurate tests with slower and delayed results.”

For smaller institutions struggling with the cost of bulk testing, researchers said it is possible to keep cases low and keep large-scale transmission from occurring even with fewer but still frequent tests. The costs of SHIELD testing ($20-$30) might help, compared to the cost of nasal swab tests ($100).

“The key design parameter is the ratio of the total number of daily tests to the institution population,” they said. “Additional measures can help combat the disease propagation such as increasing testing frequencies for subgroups with higher mobilities and increasing the efficiency of isolation of patients who test positive.”

Even with vaccines coming, Monmouth and other colleges understand the value of testing in keeping their campuses running in the fall.

“The virus is ultimately in charge, so that is why we will continue to observe strict guidelines that will ensure a safe and healthy campus,” said Monmouth President Clarence Wyatt.

Authors involved in the study included Illinois’ Subhonmesh Bose, Anton Ivanov, Sebastian Souyris, Ronald Watkins and Yuqian Xu and UC Berkeley’s Padmavati Sridhar.