By Siobhán Mitchell
After nearly a month on campus, I finally received my golden ticket and was cordially invited to get my first on-campus COVID-19 test. So, on Monday September 7th, I joined the line of students outside the Slayter coffee bar, not for a caffeine boost, but for the infamous nasopharyngeal swab.
Friendly faces – Denison’s very own athletic trainers – are the ones administering the tests each Monday, but there still seems to be something intimidating about anyone maneuvering a stick up your nose.
The tests run on a weekly cycle, with 70-145 students, faculty, and staff being called in for signal testing and 13-22 for diagnostic testing. The grand total is 516 tests over the course of five weeks (including 1 week before classes began). The number of students, faculty, and staff who make up this selection pool is not readily available, but the number of test results reported thus far in the fall semester adds up to less than a third of the campus community.
That means, hypothetically, I could have been infected, spread the virus, and fully recovered within my time on campus, all while flying completely under the testing radar. But Denison stands by their decision to not require entry testing for the entire student body, citing CDC guidelines, which have not been updated since June 30.
In addition to recommending against entry testing, the CDC also fails to mention any benefit tied to signal testing. Instead the agency suggests tests for individuals who exhibit symptoms or have had direct or suspected contact with an individual who has tested positive. At this point Denison decided to diverge from the CDC guidelines by selecting random. President Weinberg has been a proponent of this approach, relaying in his Community Update on August 20th that Denison expected asymptomatic cases to be identified in randomly-selected signal testing. Ignoring CDC guidelines might not appear to be the best idea, but it could be paying off, and Denison is not the only campus doing so.
However, by some standards Denison is failing to test a sufficient number of students as often as may be necessary. David Paltiel, PhD, a professor at Yale recommends testing the entire student body as early and often as possible. His study in collaboration with Harvard researchers stated that college reopening success relies on “frequent screening” through testing every 2-3 days.
University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign, which boasts 49,000 students, 2,800 faculty members, and 800 staff members, is the ideal example of frequent testing. In August, they released their ambitious plan to mandate testing twice per week in order to gain access to campus facilities through a less-accurate, but quicker, saliva based test, preventing the multiday turnaround for results. The testing model has led University of Illinois Urbana Champaign to be one of the leading testing centers in Illinois, making up nearly 20% of the state’s testing in the last week of August.
Additionally, University of Illinois launched a plan to mandate testing for every student living in a dorm upon check in, showing an obvious difference from Denison’s testing strategy. This testing model, in addition to retrospective recording by the NYT, has identified 1,760 cases linked to the university since the beginning of the pandemic, estimating about 3% of the community population diagnosed with COVID-19.
The most obvious difference between Denison and University of Illinois Urbana Champaign is size. Denison, composed of 3,085 people in a typical year (800 employees, 2,285 students), seems minuscule in comparison to the 59,800 people making up the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign community.
A 3% prevalence in Denison’s community would mean approximately 91 cases of COVID-19 related to campus since the beginning of the pandemic. These are based on Denison’s typical enrollment, not the reduced number of students and employees on campus right now. Denison has been nowhere close to 91 cases and has reported only nine cases, only one of which is active.
Head-to-head comparisons are often complicated due to the inconsistencies between universities and the approach they take towards reopening, not to mention the testing strategies and data records.
But some schools, like OWU, are more suited for direct comparison with Denison. OWU, located in Delaware, OH, opted to test all students upon arrival. According to the OWU testing dashboard, the university is pursuing roughly double the weekly tests Denison is despite having approximately 600 fewer students on campus (1,323). OWU also has had more positive cases, diagnosing 18 in week 4 with about 80 students in isolation or quarantine.
There is undeniable gravity for generating an adequate testing regimen in university communities to protect employees and students. No matter the size, state, and demographics associated with a college, students and employees have the right to be protected. Through the variety of reopening plans taken across the country, the importance of testing will become apparent only through the data that follows.
Siobhán Mitchell is a senior Spanish major, on the premedical track, yet taking a political science independent study. By those standards, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she can’t decide what to eat for dinner.
- First week of testing was not included because classes were not yet in session.
- This percentage is estimated based on VP Student Development Alex Miller’s “Before you arrive…” email on August 10th estimating 1,900 students to return to campus this fall.
- President Weinberg announced via email on 09/14 that testing will be increased.