Arrival COVID-19 testing has begun for on-campus undergraduate students at MU and will continue through the first week of classes.
All students living in university-owned housing must be tested for COVID-19 before officially moving in for the spring semester, according to a late December email from the university. Students must meet this requirement within five days of returning to campus.
Arrival testing has a dual purpose, said John Middleton, chief of operations for MU’s incident command related to COVID-19. It allows for data collection as well as targeted surveillance of cases in the on-campus student population.
“We’re using what we learned in the fall to target the testing at the time of arrival to campus for the spring,” Middleton said.
He said identifying positive cases early will allow infected students to be isolated and their close contacts to be quarantined, allowing the university to “box in” potential outbreaks.
Students submit their test results using a personalized online form, which was emailed to on-campus students Dec. 23 and Dec. 28.
On-campus undergraduates can get tested at home or use one of the testing options provided by MU, which are outlined on the university’s arrival testing webpage. One testing site will be opened at the Hearnes Center to test students Sunday through next Thursday. Off-campus students can also sign up to get tested at Hearnes, but it is not required of them.
Most students are getting tested at home, said Director of Residential Life Tyler Page, with around 70% of on-campus students indicating they planned to get tested before returning to campus.
The university expects around 1,000 students to get tested when they arrive in Columbia, according to previous reporting by KOMU 8. So far, around 800 students have signed up to get tested at the Hearnes Center location, 708 of whom live in university-owned housing, according to Jamie Shutter, executive director of student health and well-being.
The plan isn’t perfect, but Stephen Barnes, planning chief and medical director for MU Health Care’s COVID-19 response, told reporters Wednesday that no testing plan is.
COVID-19 tests are one-time assessments that only reveal if a person is infected at the time of the test. A student could get tested for COVID-19 when they don’t have the virus, walk out of the testing center and get exposed on the bus ride home.
“There isn’t a testing strategy that’s perfect. ... It’s human behavior that mitigates the transmission of disease,” he said.
That’s why it’s important to stay focused on social distancing and making modifications to the classroom to keep the campus safe, he said.
While some universities have required regular testing of students — in some cases requiring students and staff to be tested every two weeks — in the fall MU focused on testing symptomatic people and their close contacts.
Middleton said MU plans to stick with this strategy for the spring. He said focusing on symptomatic people and their close contacts allows the university to focus on identifying those shedding the most virus and those who are most at risk of contracting the virus as a result.
Christian Basi, director of the MU News Bureau, said there was no evidence of transmission of COVID-19 in the classroom in the fall. He credited the steps the university has taken combined with the responsible actions of students for the university being able to provide “the in-person experience that we know students want and do so in a safe matter.”
When MU students returned for the fall semester, there was a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases. According to MU’s COVID-19 dashboard, numbers spiked in August and early September, with a peak of 683 active student cases Sept. 5, before tapering off to fewer than 200 active cases mid-September through the end of the fall term.
MU is accepting two types of COVID-19 test results from students: polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and rapid antigen viral tests.
PCR tests are very accurate when performed correctly, while rapid antigen tests can sometimes miss the mark, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Rapid tests are inexpensive and fast, but in one CDC study, one in five symptomatic COVID-19 patients received a negative rapid antigen test result. As a result, the CDC recommends confirmatory PCR testing for those showing symptoms who receive a negative antigen result as well as for asymptomatic people who receive a positive result.
Regardless of that discrepancy, MU students can submit either form of testing. Barnes said the university is accepting rapid antigen testing to allow students to get tested at home in places where PCR testing may not be widely available.
“Not every community is as blessed as the Columbia community with high throughput PCR testing,” Barnes said. “In order to allow students to test at home and utilize whatever testing was available in their community, antigen testing will be accepted.”
Barnes said any student who goes to an MU testing location will receive a PCR test.
Arrival testing was not required in the fall. The university adjusted its testing strategy as data about the pandemic has evolved, Middleton said, adding that “things look very different today than they did in August.”
Barnes agreed, calling the decision to implement arrival testing a “data-driven decision (made) in order to ensure that we continue, as we did in the fall, to have a safe campus for students, faculty and staff.”