Prior to the University reopening for the fall semester, more than 10,000 students, faculty and staff were sent kits to administer at-home COVID-19 tests. After three weeks on campus, members of the community received an email on Friday, Sept. 4 from University President Rev. Peter M. Donohue, PhD, O.S.A., announcing the addition of COVID-19 surveillance testing to the University’s already established testing strategy.
“Our goal is to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our campus community,” Dr. Mary McGonigle, Director of the University Health Center, said in an interview with The Villanovan. “That is our underlying goal for all the decisions we are making. We are asking the community to follow safety measures...so, we look at these measures as tools in the box. As management of the virus evolves in medicine, we are evolving with the process to keep our campus safe.”
Testing began Tuesday, Sept. 7 and will continue through the end of the semester. Participants will be randomly selected for testing. The tests, which are highly sensitive, non-invasive and saliva-based, will be administered daily in the lobby of the Finneran Pavilion each morning. Test results will be available within 48 hours, and the testing data will be included on the daily COVID-19 dashboard.
“The testing [from Quest Diagnostics] we had when we opened the doors, was very expensive, and to do surveillance testing is also very expensive, but at the same time, there is a lot being said and written by experts in the field that surveillance testing can help us get a handle on the prevalence of the virus and help us identify if there is a part of the campus that has a higher percentage of people who are testing positive, all with the goal of helping us mitigate the virus as much as possible,” Rev. John P. Stack, O.S.A., Vice President for Student Life, said in an interview with The Villanovan. “It’s a decision — this is still expensive — but there is some confidence that we’ve gotten off to a good start with fairly good cooperation from the students, and if this helps us improve, all the better in terms of finishing the semester.”
The goal of surveillance testing for the University is to randomly test about 1% of the campus community daily, Monday through Friday. The Health Center will continue to perform diagnostic testing and has rapid testing capabilities.
“We did offer the start of the [surveillance testing] program with the nursing students, in regards to that it might be helpful to them as they go into their clinical sites at different hospitals,” McGonigle said. “At the same time, they are helping us in getting the program up and running.”
Going forward, a random selection of 1% will be brought in each day. That group will include students, faculty and staff.
The University will be working with Vault Health, which works closely with a laboratory at Rutgers University, to administer these highly sensitive, saliva-based tests. Proximity and timing were two main factors of this partnership.
“[The Vault test] also fit our institution at this point in time because we could do a large number of tests, have them couriered quickly to the lab and have the turnaround time for the results within 48 hours,” McGonigle said.
McGonigle additionally noted that the Vault system is able to offer the University flexibility if there are areas that show increased need for testing.
With a random group selected each day for testing, in addition to the diagnostic testing already performed at the Health Center for symptomatic patients and close contacts, the University is prepared to see a rise in cases, as asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 will likely begin to appear.
“To put numbers in perspective, the Health Center is still doing diagnostic testing for symptomatic students and for close contacts of our symptomatic students,” McGonigle said. “We’ve already performed, since the start of classes, over 500 diagnostic tests. Additionally, we are going to do the surveillance tests, which at 1% of our community, is about 125 tests per day. We do expect an uptick in positive cases and we have prepared for that.”
For the past three weeks, the University has only administered tests to people who had COVID-19-related symptoms or who were close contacts.
“That’s a skewed group of people,” Stack said. “It doesn’t tell you how the virus has spread in the community...so the numbers there won’t really give you an accurate picture, whereas with the random testing, we will get a better picture of the whole spread.”
The University’s COVID-19 dashboard will evolve in the coming days to include the number of tests administered each day, which will be broken down into the number of diagnostic tests and surveillance tests administered. Both McGonigle and Stack agreed that it was a natural fit for the University to adjust the dashboard as testing evolves.
Whether the University remains open or seeks a path of closure or campus-wide quarantine if clusters arise rests on the Health Center’s ability to manage cases, quarantine and isolation room availability and the personal responsibility of community members to take proper safety precautions.
“I think one of the questions we have continued to get from community members is about what exactly would have to happen before we close,” Stack said. “It’s just not easy to quantify. The reality is, so far we are doing pretty well with our resources, with the preparations the Health Center made all summer, like the space for quarantining. Everything is going fine, but that can all go away in one weekend where [cases] could explode.”
While the University has outlived many predictions that others made about how long campus would remain open, there is no clear cut answer for a case number that would deem a closure the only option.
“We aren’t going to hang our hat on one number,” McGonigle said. “There are a lot of metrics that we look at, and the leadership looks at a lot of metrics. What are our resources in the local hospital system? What are the numbers in the surrounding counties? What is our case count and our ability to manage it? All these things go into making a decision. I expect to be in the hundreds of cases throughout the semester, and we have prepared for it. There is a difference when you get 500 cases in 24 hours and when you get 500 cases over nine weeks. We are just monitoring closely all those issues and how we are able to manage them.”
Surveillance testing will allow the Student Health Center to make determinations about the level of spread in the University community, identify asymptomatic cases for isolation and make timely decisions regarding intervention and response. While this new method of testing will be added to the strategies in place, community members must still follow proper protocol and regulations set in place by the University.
“No matter what testing approach we used, we all have to comport ourselves like we have the virus — wear masks, be socially distant, monitor our symptoms, avoid large gatherings,” McGonigle said. “What we are asking you to do is not complicated, but it is not always easy. That is where the CARITAS commitment comes into play, where we ask everybody to do their part.”
Before returning to campus, all Villanovans were required to sign Community First: The CARITAS Commitment pledge. This instated the rules of wearing masks at all times, social distancing, washing and sanitizing hands, self monitoring, limiting travel and modifying behavior. The University has repeatedly asked students to follow this pledge, insisting that a successful semester relies on putting the health and safety of the community first.
“While the measures might be a pain in many ways, it’s not as much of a pain as having the disease,” Stack said.
Additionally, if a student comes to the Health Center with symptoms, that student will meet with the University’s contact tracing team. This entire process is confidential.
“We want to know the prevalence and where there could be outbreaks on our campus,” McGonigle said. “Our patients’ information is private to us. I don’t want that to be a deterrent.”
Students, faculty and staff all have the ability to call the Health Center, call the University’s contact tracers and email the covid survey email address the University has established. These teams are in place to help answer questions about COVID-19 and possible exposures.
“We want to encourage everyone to seek help when they need it,” McGonigle said.
In an additional step to keep the community healthy, the University is hosting a four-day flu clinic this week in Jake Nevin Field House for all students, faculty and staff. McGonigle stated that it will take about two weeks for the immunity for the flu shot to develop.
“If there is ever a year to get it, it’s this year,” Stack said.
As science and testing evolves for COVID-19, the University is prepared to evolve and as well.
“We were encouraged that we were off to a good start, and just to add a tool in the box, the surveillance testing can be helpful to us to monitor the spread of COVID-19 in our community via asymptomatic patients,” McGonigle said.