With the spring semester underway, students are acclimating to the updated university measures intended to curb the spread of COVID-19 on campus and across the Madison area.
This semester, a significant change in the university coronavirus response is the increase in the scope and frequency of testing on and off-campus. Undergraduate students living in residence halls and off-campus Madison residences are now required to test twice a week. Graduate students will need to have tested negative within the previous eight days to be able to utilize campus spaces.
However, difficulties with scheduled appointments and rejected saliva tests have forced the university to delay enforcement of their testing requirements until the third week of the semester and also switch to drop-in only testing. Last semester, students off-campus were not included in the required testing plan, although they were eligible to test if they chose to do so.
University officials continue to stress that the fall semester served as a crucial example for the new testing plan. At a Jan. 21 live panel event, Associate Vice Chancellor and Executive Director of University Health Services Jake Baggott emphasized how the extensive use of both nasal and saliva testing (both PCR tests, the “gold-standard” of virus testing) on and off campus will better ensure that COVID-19 cases are identified early and dealt with in accordance with public health guidelines.
According to a Wednesday email from the Office of the Chancellor, in the past week, over 20,000 coronavirus tests have been completed through the new program. The university says it has the capacity to complete about 12,000 nasal-swab tests and 70,000 saliva-based tests per week.
As of Wednesday, there have been 35 positive cases, among students and employees, since classes resumed on Jan. 25.
UW-Madison has also increased the use of saliva-based tests rather than the nasal-swab testing used exclusively last semester. The two testing locations utilized by University Housing students will continue to rely on nasal-swab tests while all other testing locations have shifted to the use of saliva-based tests, sparking concern among students.
Maggie King, a UW-Madison sophomore and student employee at a campus testing site, explained that the use of saliva-based testing at the majority of testing locations is due to residence halls using the entire volume of nasal-swab tests available on campus.
On Jan. 21, a petition was created asking university officials to reconsider their reliance on saliva-based testing this semester, describing the updated plan as a “waste of students time,” given that the saliva-based test takes longer to self-collect than the nasal-swab test. As of Jan. 27, around 850 individuals have signed the petition calling for an “easier and more efficient” testing strategy.
Petitioners are also concerned that the testing process at facilities is unsafe, but Baggott confirmed that there has been no evidence of COVID-19 spread at testing sites at UW-Madison or the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the institution in which the revised COVID-19 plan this spring is modeled from.
A sizable concern regarding saliva-based testing is the rejection of collected samples and the inability of some to perform the tests. Many students at testing sites have completed tests and received word that their samples were rejected or inconclusive while others have been at test sites — unable to produce saliva or been told that their sample is unusable — and sent home without completing the COVID-19 test.
“We’ve had some people that have gotten upset when their vial was rejected on site,” said King.
Chancellor Blank and university officials have attempted to address these issues by sending out tips to the campus community meant to support students in providing samples that will be received by the labs but many continue to experience issues with the testing process.
Sydney Mueller, a UW-Madison sophomore, has been unable to complete her mandatory saliva-based test since returning to campus.
“I was unable to produce enough saliva to even fill a small part of the tube and I had to leave the testing center untested,” explained Mueller — citing a medical condition and subsequent operation that left her with one functioning salivary gland that influences her ability to produce saliva.
The organization of the testing — the staff and the system — was efficient but the saliva-test itself was not pleasant, said Mueller. King also highlighted how site managers have been skillful in dealing with issues while remaining committed to keeping testers safe.
Mueller is worried that a potential exemption from saliva testing due to her medical condition will be denied — ultimately affecting her ability to complete the mandatory testing and the safety of the Madison community.
As the university adjusts its plan while community comments and issues arise, students, like Mueller, are left with questions and concerns.
“Although they advertise wait times, I feel that the hours in the morning and around lunch will be incredibly busy as that is when everyone is free,” said Mueller about the university testing’s shift to drop-in only. “I am also concerned about the university’s handling of medical exemptions and why the steps for filing for one were never made explicitly clear.”
The university’s coronavirus response FAQ page states that students should request medical accommodations relating to testing through the McBurney Disability Resource Center.
The university has also been working with the laboratory that processes the saliva-based tests to better ensure that results come back within 24 hours, according to the Jan. 27 email sent to the campus community.
King, herself, has had issues with receiving test results within 24 hours but said she was not concerned because testing facilities are inundated right now — stressing that “there’s no harm in testing again!”
The Safer Badgers app is another development incorporated into the university’s coronavirus response. On the app, students, staff, and faculty can find testing locations and access test results.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is the students’ key to campus, the Badger Badge function — serving as a pass for entry into campus buildings. A green badge, indicating that users are up to date on their testing, will be verified by Badger Wellness Ambassadors upon entry into campus facilities starting on Feb. 8.
Individuals that do not follow the testing protocol will not be able to access campus spaces within this new system and could face other consequences if the lack of adherence continues. Students unable to meet the testing requirements due to travel can fill out an exception form.
The app also has an exposure notifications feature that users can opt into to determine if they have been with or around someone who has contracted COVID-19 and had their positive case reported in the app.
Baggott pointed out how the app is meant to further support the established testing plan, allowing the university to be more responsive and combat the potential spread of the virus. At the same panel, Todd Shecter, the Chief Technology Officer, reiterated the importance of adhering to public health guidance in conjunction with the use of the app as well.
On Jan. 22, university officials announced that all on-campus testing locations would be drop-in only, rather than appointment-based, citing feedback from the campus community and a need for more flexibility with testing as reasons for the switch.
Within the Safer Badger app, instead of making appointments, users will now be able to see the wait times at busy testing sites and can decide to get tested when it best suits their schedule.
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor stressed the university’s commitment to public health and fighting the pandemic — highlighting the importance of protecting UW-Madison and Dane County.
The university is “taking this global pandemic as seriously as possible and keeping our community as safe as possible,” Reesor said, maintaining the importance of a high degree of testing, isolation and quarantine periods.
The fundamental goal of UW’s response to COVID-19, as described by the Vice Chair of ASM and member of the Coronavirus Student Task Force, Aerin Leigh Lammers, at the university’s live panel, is to make the community safer, although emphasizing “growing pains” will endure as the community adjusts to the new protocols.