The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently completed its in-person fall semester. And as the nation watches the COVID-19 virus surge, the school continues the virus testing program that has worked so well since it began in August.
The COVID-19 positivity rate for the entire student body and faculty for the past seven days was 0.45 percent. The number of total tests given since the inception of the program? A staggering 908,158. But it’s that rate of testing and contact tracing that reduced the positivity rate from a high of nearly 3 percent in late August to what it is now.
All of the 49,000 students, 2,800 faculty and 8,000 staff are tested at least once weekly using saliva tests, which have proven to produce fewer false positives and fewer false negatives than the swab tests. The saliva test entails the subject “drooling” into a vial.
“We started the week before classes began on August 24,” Brian Brauer, EMS coordinator at the University of Illinois, wrote in an email. “It was our ‘soft’ opening for the program.” The following week, because of off-campus activities, the positivity rate spiked to 2.86 percent. A week later, with testing and contact tracing, officials had the rate down to 1 percent.
Brauer wrote that the university has a defined schedule for testing and that, initially, everyone was tested twice per week. It was learned that undergrad students were testing positive at a rate higher than everyone else, though, and so as those students have continued with twice-weekly testing, others were tested once per week until the current surge occurred around the country.
“We are able to identify clusters of positive cases based on addresses, and we moved those undergrads to every other day,” Bauer wrote. “Currently, we’re back to twice a week testing for all persons on campus.”
The tests are free at the 17 locations on campus. A university app tied to students IDs moderates the process and acts as a key for students to gain access to campus buildings. They are unable to get that access if they haven’t tested.
If students test positive, they are notified within 30 minutes with a phone call. “We did not want to email a student or faculty staff member that they were positive,” said Jason Heimbaugh of the University of Illinois Police Department. “We wanted a human voice. Within 30 minutes of knowing, we should have somebody calling that person to reach out to them so that we get them locked down even quicker.”
Students or faculty who test positive are put into isolation on one of the several floors of the residence halls that are being used for that purpose. Other floors in the residence halls are being used for quarantining individuals who have been exposed to the virus.
The students are able to track, through Bluetooth, if they have been in close contact with a recently confirmed positive case and are notified by the university that they have to get tested.