BU to Set Up COVID-19 Testing for Students, Faculty, and Staff
BU to Set Up COVID-19 Testing for Students, Faculty, and Staff
“We are starting to see a vision of fall emerge,” President Brown says
Boston University announced on Thursday that it is planning to stand up its own COVID-19 testing program this fall for faculty, staff, and students, a critical step—along with contact tracing, social distancing, hygiene, and isolation and treatment for those infected—in a multipronged approach to repopulating its residential campus.
Details are still being finalized, with a team under Gloria Waters, vice president and associate provost for research, ironing out issues from the projected costs to the volume of tests that could be performed on a campus with 40,000 people to the precise methodology for testing people.
The samples would be tested for the coronavirus at a lab inside the Rajen Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering. Newly purchased specialized robots would be used to help speed up the test result process, and results of the tests would be delivered to people electronically. Leading the testing program will be Catherine Klapperich, a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering and director of the BU Precision Diagnostics Center. Once it’s running, the laboratory will be run and overseen by certified clinical lab professionals and will work closely with the offices of Student Health and Occupational Health.
The decision to implement a University-wide testing program is not viewed as a stand-alone solution to resuming in-person classes after their abrupt interruption in March because of the global coronavirus pandemic, says Robert A. Brown, BU president. Rather, it’s one key step in a series of public health measures BU is taking to make all members of the University community feel comfortable, and safe, about returning to the Charles River, Fenway, and Medical campuses.
The “gold standard” of testing
“We are starting to see a vision of fall emerge,” Brown says. “The goal is to take advantage of the best public health and safety tools at our disposal in order to allow our students to get back to school. Our classroom instruction will be designed with flexibility in mind, offering both remote learning with in-person participation, so that every student, whatever their location or personal circumstance, will receive the academic support and instruction they deserve.”
BU’s testing protocols most likely will involve distributing testing kits for self-sampling and could require people to spit their saliva into a cup, or possibly swab inside their nostrils, which is called an anterior nasal swab. That decision has not been made, because officials want to be sure the most accurate and reliable methodology is used and saliva is considered less reliable than the swab. The kits would then be sealed, collected, and brought to the lab for testing. Davidson Hamer, a School of Public Health professor of global health and medicine, is chairing a multi-institution group looking to determine testing frequency and surveillance protocols on college campuses.
The coronavirus test that BU is planning to use is called RT-PCR, which Klapperich calls the “gold standard” of available tests because of its ability to detect people “who are asymptomatic and/or people early in the course of disease.” She says that RT-PCR test has the “highest sensitivity for this kind of infection.” By detecting people who have the virus, but no symptoms, the test could help contain its spread on campus through early intervention, self-isolation, and medical treatment.
During a virtual Management Town Meeting last week with other University leaders, Brown said that BU’s focus is on three key steps: testing, tracing, and isolation. “We hope to roll out a set of protocols that would lead to containment of any cases, or any symptomatic people, within our community,” he said.
Additionally, the president said, BU is adapting its housing, dining, and extracurricular activities so they still provide the residential experience people want, while using appropriate health and safety practices.
“Testing of students, faculty, and staff will provide us with real-time data about the health of the campus,” says Ann Zaia, director of BU’s Occupational Health Center. “Having this information will allow us to act quickly to control potential outbreaks by implementing quarantine, isolation, cleaning, and contact tracing protocols.”
Judy Platt, BU Student Health Services director, adds that widespread robust testing is still being implemented around the country and by having its own facility, BU can prioritize testing for members of the campus who need it. “The other elements of recovery, like physical distancing and practicing good hygiene, are also important,” Platt says, “but we still need testing to provide greater certainty that someone actually has the virus.”
(The University also has set up a COVID hotline, 617-358-4990, for anyone to call Monday through Friday from 9 am to 5 pm. And students can message a nurse 24/7 through their Patient Connect portal.)
The goal is for people to be tested, but not all with the same frequency. Students with roommates in high-density dorms, for example, might be tested more regularly. And anybody experiencing possible symptoms would always be able to visit Student Health Services, or after visiting their primary care provider, could notify the Occupational Health Center.
“We can’t do adequate risk assessment and risk reduction if we don’t know the prevalence of the virus in our community,” Klapperich says. “If we learn that particular situations are high-risk, we can alert people to increase distance and take other steps. Testing like this will take asymptomatic infections out of the chain of infection earlier, and fewer people will get sick as a result.”
“A different set of rules”
Both Brown and Klapperich say they recognize that testing is not a guarantee of safety. “But when combined with other elements of our plan, including contact tracing and treatment strategies such as self-quarantine,” Brown says, “we will have a safer campus environment that combines teaching and research with public health vigilance.”
In addition, he says, the University’s research and clinical activities will continue a gradual resumption, following the testing, tracing, and isolation practices being put in place. “Those steps make it possible for us to be more confident in our ability to reopen this fall, even though under a very different set of rules,” Brown says.
We will have a safer campus environment that combines teaching and research with public health vigilance.
BU’s plan comes as colleges and universities across the country, after moving to remote teaching and learning in March, canceling commencements, and adjusting or canceling their summer programs, are now grappling with their fall strategies. The coronavirus has infected more than 1.5 million people nationwide and killed more than 95,000 Americans; Massachusetts has been one of the hardest hit states, with more than 6,000 deaths and 89,000 confirmed cases, while performing more than 400,000 COVID-19 tests.
A national issue
In a sign of just how important the issue of higher education is amid the pandemic, it became a focus of a US Senate hearing May 12 on the subject of reopening the economy, when Anthony Fauci (Hon.’18), the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, testified about the state of the virus and testing being done.
Panel chairman Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) asked Fauci his thoughts on the possibility of 5,000 campuses nationwide reopening in the fall and bringing 20 million students back. Fauci answered that it was a “bridge too far” to expect a vaccine or treatment by the fall. He said that whether students will feel safe returning to school would largely depend on testing capabilities.
To that point, Admiral Brett Giroir, the coronavirus “testing czar” at the Department of Health and Human Services, said one possibility was if colleges could develop a strategy where every student on campus was tested at the same time. Giroir predicted that the United States could have the capacity to conduct 25 million to 30 million tests a month by the fall, allowing schools to have a strategy in place to quickly identify their confirmed COVID-19 cases and isolate the necessary people.
“The vast majority of reopening plans have testing as a core element necessary to help identify people who have the virus,” says Platt of Student Health Services. “Once we know who those people are, we can provide them with support and isolation housing recommendations. We can then trace their contacts to help limit the spread of infection.”
Also, for the first time the World Health Organization shifted its worried tone of the last few months to one of cautious optimism. The organization said that it sees “potentially positive data” in four or five treatments for the coronavirus and after more studies, might be able to make some recommendations soon. “We do have some treatments that seem to be in very early studies limiting the severity or the length of the illness,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said.
President Brown, similarly, expresses his own cautious optimism for BU’s future. “We have a lot more to do to get ready,” he says, “but we are starting to see a residential campus environment for our students, faculty, and staff this fall.”
I saw that many graduate programs were added today to the hybrid program. When can we expect to hear details of what the program changes will be?
I realize antibody testing is not the focus here, but- I believe it would be beneficial to develop such testing in an official capacity as part of a return to normal.
Is there any parallel planning for antibody testing?
BU has a large number of faculty who are in the CDC “high risk” category (over 65 and/or with underlying medical conditions). Will this be taken into consideration with the return to campus plan?
If 5 students test positive, they are likely to have infected a hundred more, and all of their faculty. Everyone will have to self-quarantine for at least two, possible three weeks. So remote teaching will be the norm, not the exception. At what point will we have to close again? Ten positive students in a week? One hundred?
I highly doubt a hundred people and all their faculty will be infected as long as masks are worn, proper hygiene is followed, and direct bodily fluid isn’t being passed from one individual to another. Is it better to be at college where everyone is required to wear a mask, or at home where family is going back to work/getting groceries/running errands and do not wear a mask at home? There really is no win win situation thats why BU is focusing on giving people options they find comfortable.
Does the plan include the MED campus students, faculty and staff?
Yes, all campuses is the plan
Yes, all campuses is the plan.
There are students and faculty with pre-existing conditions/at risk. How does the school plan to keep both students and faculty safe considering this? Also undergraduate large style dormitories all over campus will be high risk as it is not feasible to social distance there with elevators, dining halls, common areas, and even roommates. What about international students who cannot enter the US under current circumstances? The school cannot have a situation where a student or faculty dies from COVID19 complications. Testing a sounds great but that does not necessarily mean everyone is safe.
Thats why the people who do not feel safe can choose to student from home as stated in the 5th paragraph of the article “Our classroom instruction will be designed with flexibility in mind, offering both remote learning with in-person participation, so that every student, whatever their location or personal circumstance”. Reading comprehension is really key when reading this article. Also, the fact that BU will give students a choice to stay at home is pretty commendable since some schools have not announced they will be doing the same. How they will keep students safe in high density situations like elevators? No body knows yet, but then again as mentioned before there is the option of staying home, which will not only lessen campus density but allow all students to feel comfortable in their environment.
The article states that there would be an online option for those who aren’t able to make it back to campus whether it be due to high risk or travel restrictions. It seems they are accommodating to everyone’s situations and allowing students to make the choice whether they’re comfortable or not to return to campus, class, etc., on their own.
Hello.. it would be good to know the plan for international students who are not currently within United States but will need to go back for the Fall 2020 session? Will they continue remotely?
This is absolutely ridiculous to think that you could possibly control the health that many students. From move in to classes to extra curricular activity seriously!
If my child were to get sick where would you quarantine them? How would you monitor the illness and make sure they are getting the best health care? What about students with pre existing health concerns?
Students coming from all over the country and the world. Not only are they being put at risk just to get back to campus they put everyone around them at risk. What if there is another shutdown just getting that many kids home is a disaster not only financially draining but then you risk the health of everyone they come into contact with at home. I can’t even imagine my child being sick and not being able to get to them in our case 1400 miles away.
I hope you really consider online classes for all of our health.
I suggest you reread the article. Your child has the CHOICE to stay at home. As does every other student, including the student with pre existing health concerns. NO ONE IS FORCING STUDENTS ON CAMPUS. The plan to have a hybrid learning environment is specifically designed with international/immunocompromised students in mind. Your child can also transfer or take a gap year if they/you truly do not like the fact BU is opening up like many other schools. BU should be applauded for taking this measure when many other schools aren’t. It only takes one incident to contract the virus, this can happen anytime when masks aren’t being worn by both parties. As long as everyone wears a mask, and uses proper hygiene the risk is at a MINIMUM.
I think you need to remember that COVID-19 very likely will not go away EVER. There is no guarantee that a vaccine will actually work (much like the flu vaccine), considering there have been other SARS outbreaks and a vaccine has still not been invented. How long should universities chose to take online classes, and provide inferior education than what was promised? Is it better for them to open now, or wait till winter when its prime flu and COVID-19 season? No economy or business can remain closed until 2021/2022 the projected date for a vaccine, it is time to be realistic and do a cost benefit analysis regarding the choices that BU has given you.
Great response! I totally agree with you! I am a parent and I want my student on campus! We understand the risks! If you are too afraid stay home.
How would this affect international students and their visas? From all I know if you are international you have to complete some requirements including in person classes. What if an international student decides to stay in their country? How would that decision would affect their visa status?
The earlier the students move to campus the faster they overcome the fear of the unknown which wouldn’t be as bad as being stuck at home exposed to working parents.We need to cross that bridge to move on.