Nearly 700 MU students have tested positive for the coronavirus since Aug. 19, according to the university.
At the same time, MU has revised the process for getting a COVID-19 test, and some students are confused about the steps they need to take to get tested.
In the weeks leading up to Aug. 24, the first day of classes, community members displaying COVID-19 symptoms could go to the Mizzou North testing site and receive an evaluation without a health provider’s order. This was because MU “had a mechanism in place at the drive-thru site to assess patients and provide an order onsite if needed,” Liz McCune, associate director of MU News Bureau, wrote in an email.
Then, the students arrived and the demand for testing increased.
“Many students showed up for testing without provider orders,” McCune said.
This required MU Health Care to assess them onsite “before they could be swabbed,” McCune said via email. “This slowed our process and caused longer wait times.”
The new requirement to have a referral before driving to testing sites has made the process more efficient, McCune said.
However, it has also created an additional barrier for some students.
Zander Sohl, 21, a fourth-year architecture major at MU, learned about the new process firsthand when he sought COVID-19 testing Monday. He said the process was confusing and had he not been insured, it might have deterred him from getting tested.
A long, confusing day
Sohl said he was experiencing chest tightness, trouble breathing, and shortness of breath and wasn’t sure where to go for testing but heard the Student Health Center might be the place. At 10:30 a.m., he said he arrived, mask on, at the health center. The first person he spoke to there escorted him back outside the building and gave him a business card, telling him he would need to call and schedule an appointment to be tested.
“The lady on the phone told me I needed to schedule an appointment over Zoom before I could be evaluated,” he said, “which I thought was strange because I already had symptoms.”
After scheduling the appointment, Sohl said he received an email saying he’d need to scan a copy of his insurance card and log into his MU Health account for his appointment.
“My health insurance card isn’t something I keep on me, so I had to go through my parents for all of that,” he said, “I was pretty overwhelmed and confused.”
At 2 p.m., Sohl said his appointment began and he was asked standard questions about drinking, drugs and mental health.
“The appointment took about 30 minutes and ended the way it should’ve began,” Sohl said, “with the doctor telling me that he would order me a COVID test since I have symptoms of COVID.”
With a doctor’s order for a test, he headed over to the testing site near the Virginia Avenue parking structure. But by then, the afternoon’s thunderstorm had picked back up and both outdoor testing centers had closed due to the storm. He waited it out in his car.
He finally got the test at about 2:40 p.m. Monday. He has still not received the results.
Lots of cases, big slowdown
On Wednesday, Boone County clocked its highest single-day increase in infections — 168.
In a news release in the afternoon, the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services said it could take up to five days after receiving results to notify those who have tested positive, and another day to notify close contacts.
MU reopened its second drive-thru testing site, located at the Hearnes Center, in the Mizzou Softball Stadium parking lot Wednesday, citing the increase in demand for testing. By Wednesday afternoon, the university reported a total of 483 active cases on its dashboard. It also lists 683 total cases since it began receiving data from the Health Department on Aug. 19.
According to MU Health Care, testing at Mizzou North at 115 Business Loop 70 W., has increased by nearly 100 tests per day in the past two weeks, “causing longer lines and wait times. Due to these higher volumes, the Mizzou North site reached capacity a few days, and staff stopped accepting additional cars in order to accommodate everyone already in line before the site closed for the day.”
Less than 300 miles away, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has taken a different approach, thanks to development of its own saliva test that received emergency Food and Drug Administration approval right before classes began, according to Forbes magazine. Students are required to do twice weekly saliva tests to attend class. The university also required all students to be tested upon arrival to campus.
This could be partly why Champaign County’s positivity rate was 12.72 per 1,000 residents Wednesday, with a total population of 201,081, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, based on data published Wednesday by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Meanwhile, Boone County’s rate was 15.96 per 1,000, with a population of 176,515, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
MU has declined to follow suit in the “surveillance testing” approach of schools like the University of Illinois.
“Our COVID executive group meets daily to discuss the status of the university as it relates to the pandemic,” McCune said via email. “This group is monitoring a variety of metrics and is poised to pivot our approach if needed.”
McCune said MU’s experts continue to believe the best defense against COVID-19 is to alter the social behavior that spreads it.
However, over 300 students have already been referred to the Office of Student Accountability and Support, and 10 Greek houses have been suspended pending further investigation for alleged violations, according to The Associated Press.
“Testing only those who are showing symptoms or have a known exposure aligns with CDC and public health guidance and allows us to conserve testing resources for those who need it while limiting false positives,” she said.
But McCune also said MU doesn’t want cost to deter students from seeking COVID-19 testing.
She said students who wish to be seen by a Student Health Center provider should call 573-882-7481. Low- or no-cost options are available, depending on income.
Students can also access MU Health Care’s free nurse assessment line at 573-884-0948.
Jesslyn Chew, the public relations manager of MU Health Care, said there is no copay to get a COVID-19 test, and that a $150 lab fee is billed directly to a patient’s insurance after they’re tested.
The $150 lab fee covers the cost of each test specimen to be processed, Chew said, and because MU is a ”safety net hospital,” students or community members without insurance don’t have to pay the fee.
Not all patients have been asked for their insurance information at testing sites in recent weeks, but Chew said these patients will eventually be called back. Chew said there are many people working overtime to contact patients because the process has been delayed by the recent surge in testing.