BU Details Campuswide COVID-19 Testing Plan for Fall
A special app and web portal, mandatory precautions, and community testing are all part of blueprint for return to “vibrant” BU community
The plan to keep Boston University students, faculty, and staff as safe as possible from COVID-19 while reopening in the fall includes mandatory precautions to prevent spread of the disease, an app for students and a web portal for faculty and staff to report symptoms, community testing, and medical intervention for confirmed virus cases.
Robert A. Brown, BU president, outlined the plan in a letter to the BU faculty and staff Wednesday, saying that the protocols will be effective when followed and are mandatory for all.
“Achieving the goal of protecting our community will require the commitment of the entire Boston University community to adhere to necessary practices and protocols,” the president wrote.
Brown acknowledged the “extraordinarily difficult circumstances” faced by every member of the BU community during the pandemic, as well as the looming challenge of returning to campus when schools and daycare centers may be closed or not operating normally. BU, like colleges and universities across the country, pivoted to remote teaching and learning in mid-March as the novel coronavirus spread rapidly, and now schools are trying to formulate plans to resume operations in the fall, with many opting for hybrid plans that include both in-person and remote classes.
Not every detail of BU’s testing plan has been worked out, but following the protocols outlined in his letter will allow the University to resume in-person teaching and repopulate the residential campus in the fall as safely as possible, Brown said.
“Life on campus will not look or be the same as it was last fall,” he wrote. “However, our plans to return to campus operations with new protocols and policies will enable us to reconstitute the vibrant residential community that is the foundation of the learning environment that our students and their parents expect from Boston University. Most importantly, these layers of protection are designed to keep our students, faculty, and staff healthy by preventing the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”
The four components of the plan are: public health protocols such as social distancing to help prevent or limit COVID-19 infections, daily reporting by all individuals on whether they have symptoms or not, community testing, and medical intervention for cases of the virus. The University is developing an app with BU Kerberos authentication to facilitate symptom reporting, scheduling of tests, and reporting of test results.
“We recognize that there are questions about the details of the multipronged approach and look forward to sharing these in the weeks to come,” says Judy Platt, director of Student Health Services and chair of the University’s Medical Advisory Group. “At every step, measures are being implemented to mitigate risk.”
Information will be posted on the Back2BU website, while some details will be included in the app.
Public health protocols
COVID-19 is transmitted when it is “shed” by infected people, primarily in aerosolized droplets emitted by breathing, coughing, and sneezing. The spread of the disease “is a function of the biology of the disease, the environment, and societal and individual actions that limit transmission,” Brown wrote.
To avoid spread of the coronavirus, everyone must follow the familiar rules on social distancing, wearing face coverings, and handwashing, and additional sanitation measures being developed, such as wiping down workstations. These precautions will continue throughout the fall or until a vaccine is available.
An important protection for the community is the individual’s obligation to report symptoms of COVID-19, which the University will facilitate through an app for students and a web portal for faculty and staff. Each individual will be required to report each day whether or not they have symptoms of the virus.
Those daily reports will go to Student Health Services (for students) or the Occupational Health Center (for staff and faculty), and individuals with symptoms may be asked to come to one of several testing stations that will be deployed on campus for a test. Even those who report no symptoms will remain in the broader pool from which people will be selected for ongoing testing.
The University is developing a plan to test students, faculty, and staff on the Charles River and Medical campuses in August as the academic year begins and then continue testing throughout the semester based on categories for faculty, staff, and students (see explanation of categories below). Planning is also underway for testing student cohorts on the Medical Campus who will begin classroom activities in July.
“We are also learning that one of the important characteristics of COVID-19 is that it can infect individuals who remain asymptomatic throughout much, if not the entire time they have the disease, but who nonetheless may be transmitting the virus throughout this period,” Brown wrote, so self-reporting of symptoms alone will not stop its spread. “Our testing program will focus on identifying both asymptomatic and symptomatic members of our community who are carrying COVID-19 so they can be promptly treated and isolated.”
BU will use what is considered the most effective test for detecting the presence of the virus, the RT-PCR, or reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, method. The test detects the RNA from the virus using genomic technology and will detect both asymptomatic and symptomatic cases with high accuracy. BU will acquire samples via the AN, or anterior nares, method of self-acquisition from the nostril.
Our plans to return to campus operations with new protocols and policies will enable us to reconstitute the vibrant residential community that is the foundation of the learning environment that our students and their parents expect from Boston University.
The University is establishing a high-throughput facility for RT-PCR testing in the Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering to process tests. The lab will be capable of processing over 5,000 tests per day and delivering the results in under 24 hours, Brown wrote.
The project is led by Catherine Klapperich, a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering and director of the BU Precision Diagnostics Center at ENG. Dean Tolan, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology, molecular biology, cell biology, and biochemistry and of bioinformatics, will be clinical lab director; his biology lab is already CLIA-certified, meaning it meets federal regulatory standards for clinical diagnostic testing. Automation expert Douglas Densmore, an ENG associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, is designing the automation system to deploy the liquid-handling robots used in running the tests.
Individuals will be notified through the app or web portal at least a day in advance of the need to be tested on a specific date. They can then report to any one of the testing stations, where they will receive a test kit with a bar-coded vial for the sample. They will perform the test under observation and leave the vial for transport to the testing facility. The results will be communicated to them within 24 hours and conveyed to Student Health Services (for students) or the Occupational Health Center (for staff and faculty).
Dining Services workers who are employed by an outside contractor will be tested through the University’s lab; the precise way of notifying those workers about testing appointments and results is being worked out.
How will the University decide how often to test each individual student, staff member, and faculty member? BU is developing testing protocols as a function of categories for faculty, staff, and students. Testing frequency will be adjusted according to the prevalence of the virus in the University community and in Boston.
Complete details on the categories can be found at the bottom.
A student who tests positive will be contacted by Student Health Services. The student will also be retested to verify the positive result. In cases where a student tests positive after being assigned to quarantine housing, they will remain in that private unit. In cases where a student tests positive before being placed in quarantine, they will go directly to isolation housing, where they may share a space and a bathroom in a residence with other students who have tested positive.
If a faculty or staff member tests positive, the Occupational Health Center will be in touch with them regarding both medical and public health measures. The individual will also be retested to verify the positive result.
Contact tracing for rapid identification of those who might have been exposed to the virus by an infected person is key to controlling its spread. The University will implement contact tracing for all infections of individuals in categories 1 and 2.
For residential students, the individuals in their immediate housing network will be a primary focus, as well as others they have had close contact with in preceding days.
“Recognizing the interrelatedness of all the health and safety aspects related to COVID-19, we are combining testing, daily symptom analysis, and when needed, contact tracing, to assure that the health of the students, faculty, and staff remains our number one priority as you return to the BU community,” says Ann M. Zaia, director of the Occupational Health Center.