For the past decade, university arms races have centered on who can build the most luxurious dorms and biggest sports facilities or offer the most “country club” amenities like posh gyms and pools. But the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign may have cornered what has become the most crucial amenity of all as the 2020 school year kicks off: COVID testing.
After receiving FDA emergency use authorization for its saliva test shortly before classes were scheduled to begin, the university—located about two hours south of Chicago—has implemented one of the most aggressive and comprehensive COVID testing and tracking programs in the nation, and is offering a hybrid model of in-person and virtual classes. “We don’t like this virus. We want to crush it, and that’s what we’re doing, and we’re doing it on a massive scale,” university president Timothy Killeen told CNBC on Friday.
The testing is so widespread on campus that UIUC tests represented 20% of all tests administered in the state of Illinois and 1.5% of all tests administered nationwide, according to a recent column in the Chicago Sun-Times by Sheldon H. Jacobson, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Janet A. Jokela, a dean at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign.
As the authors wrote, the approach too many other educational institutions are taking has a fatal flaw: “Many schools are testing students only upon their arrival to campus, and one week later. Then they are waiting for students to show symptoms before they test again. This strategy is a formula for disaster, given that a majority of infected students will be asymptomatic or display only mild symptoms.” The authors go on to say that a modest positivity rate of 2% of individuals arriving on campus will result in 500 to 900 initial infections. If those cases aren’t swiftly caught and the individuals quarantined, the virus will spread unfettered.
Universities such as UNC–Chapel Hill, Michigan State, and Notre Dame have already canceled or temporarily halted in-person classes after experiencing such community spread. Others such as Stanford and Harvard elected to cancel in-person classes entirely.
How UIUC’s testing works
Here’s how the UIUC system is set up. Each person who comes to campus gets an initial test, then must get tested twice a week. A negative test result within the past four days is linked to your ID via a university-developed tracking app, and without that green light you won’t be admitted to university buildings.
A key component of UIUC protocol is its saliva-based test, which was developed in-house and is similar to one developed at Yale. As researchers at Yale outlined, nasal swab tests have several disadvantages, notably that the swabs can be in short supply, testing requires health care workers to use lots of PPE, and there are also shortages of the special chemicals needed for processing. Those factors make testing expensive and mean tests can take days to process: “Meanwhile, if patients don’t quarantine while awaiting test results that turn out to be positive, infection can continue to spread,” the Yale authors wrote.
In contrast, the UIUC website says that typical saliva test results are available within five hours. A map of on-campus testing centers shows 17 locations, something of a miracle to any city- or suburb-dweller who has had to travel miles—or even to another state—to find an available COVID test.
The university also updates and publicizes its own COVID tracking website. University spokeswoman Robin Kaler told the Chicago Tribune that on Tuesday, 120 positive results were identified from 15,850 new tests. The rolling five-day positivity rate is 0.75%, according to the latest data.
To be sure, UIUC’s efforts are in their early stages. And the success or failure of its in-person learning plan will depend on student compliance when it comes to testing, as well as quarantining. But if there is a viable pre-vaccine path forward for in-person learning, this is one arms race that UIUC seems to be winning.