In a recent guest commentary from Yousuf El-Jayyousi, “MU will endanger students with fall reopening plan,” El-Jayyousi dismissed MU’s reopening plans — providing online and blended instruction, contact tracing and choosing not to regularly test all students for COVID-19 during the coming semester — as a failure to students.
For instance, El-Jayyousi claims that “widespread testing is the most effective way to contain the virus.” From a medical perspective, this is untrue. While testing identifies most of the individuals infected at the moment of testing, it does not identify all within a population, nor predict who will be infected tomorrow or the next day. Spread of the virus throughout a population can only effectively be prevented over time through using proper hand hygiene, maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from others and wearing a mask when unable to distance.
It is social behavior that spreads COVID-19, and testing does not tend to change that behavior. Indeed, in some cases, a negative test can actually encourage risky behaviors, leading people to believe they are safe to ignore public health interventions designed to prevent the spread of the disease.
While El-Jayyousi addresses false positives, he does not address false negatives, which are a common result for those who have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus but are asymptomatic at the time of testing.
Contact tracing — not testing — is the most important intervention in preventing contagion, as it allows public health professionals to keep a firm eye on the spread of the virus without delivering false assurance to asymptomatic carriers. But while El-Jayyousi believes all students should be tested, he also states that contact tracing is too big a burden for “a severely understaffed health department.”
In reality, mass student testing will cost well over $1 million per week, reducing resources necessary to provide proven measures, such as disease detection, isolation and quarantine facilities, contact tracing, the supplies and equipment necessary for safe repopulation of our classrooms and facilities and IT infrastructure necessary for online work. In line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations against screening populations of asymptomatic people , MU’s focus is on promoting campus safety. The university is investing in personnel to ensure that we have the ability to conduct all necessary contact tracing in concert with our public health department, as well as screening for access to some facilities on campus.
Our priority must be the most vulnerable among us, and we must ensure that faculty, students and staff with health conditions and others at a heightened risk of harm from the virus have access to necessary resources.
Finally, El-Jayyousi claims “the MU Student Health Center will no longer give medical excuses” for students to be excused from class or work, which he goes on to claim will have an adverse effect on those that are most vulnerable to COVID-19. This is simply not true. Due to privacy laws, MU has never given medical excuses to students. Proof of visits are issued, as well as information addressing when someone with a communicable disease should return to class or work. This policy is consistent with those of our peer institutions and the American College Health Association. It also reflects our commitment to maintaining patient confidentiality, teaching students how to use health care resources appropriately and supporting meaningful dialogue between students and teachers.
Everyone working at MU’s Student Health Center and MU Health Care is committed to preserving and improving the health of our community. The policies and plans currently in place are in service of those goals, and they will evolve as necessary to meet new needs. While it is understandable to feel anxiety as students begin to return to campus, our health care system, public health department, and MU leadership are hard at work ensuring the campus they return to is ready. This is our community, too, and we want nothing more than for its people to be safe as they learn, educate and steer the university into a healthy future.Stevan Whitt is a doctor with MU Health Care, and Scott Henderson is a doctor with the Student Health Center.