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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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Academic Institutions Still Rely Heavily on COVID-19 Symptom-Checking Technology Despite Questions About Its Usefulness

A New York Times report suggests that frequent testing is still the best approach to controlling spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus

Many colleges and universities go to great lengths to screen their students for signs of COVID-19 using technologies that include fever scanners, heart-rate monitors, and symptom-checking apps. But a recent report in The New York Times, titled, “Colleges That Require Virus-Screening Tech Struggle to Say Whether It Works,” suggests that academic institutions would be better off adopting frequent clinical laboratory testing for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, even if it is more expensive than symptom screening.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to pathologists and other medical laboratory professionals who have followed news and research about the pandemic. Back in Sept. 2020, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a media statement noted that “symptom-based screening has limited effectiveness because people with COVID-19 may have no symptoms or fever at the time of screening, or only mild symptoms.”

That same month, Medscape reported that presidential advisor Anthony Fauci, MD, said, “It is now clear that about 40%-45% of infections are asymptomatic.”

But this hasn’t prevented educational institutions from investing in costly screening technologies. One cited by The New York Times (NYT) was the University of Idaho, where 9,000 students live on or near campus. The university has spent $90,000 on fever scanners resembling airport metal detectors, the paper reported, but as of early March, the units had identified fewer than 10 people with high skin temperatures.

“Even then, university administrators could not say whether the technology had been effective because they have not tracked students flagged with fevers to see if they went on to get tested for the virus,” the NYT reported, adding that many other institutions that adopted screening technologies have failed to systematically measure the effectiveness of these approaches.

“The moral of the story is you can’t just invest in this tech without having a validation process behind it,” infectious-disease epidemiologist Saskia Popescu PhD, MPH, of George Mason University told The New York Times.

Rising COVID-19 Infections on College Campuses

These efforts have come amid increasing COVID-19 infection rates on many US campuses. In “Cases Rise, Restrictions Begin,” Inside Higher Ed reported that large universities were doing better than they had in the fall 2020 semester, but that “other campuses—including those that kept cases low in the fall—are seeing numbers rise.” One such campus was Boston College, which cast blame on students who were not following safety protocols.

For its story, The New York Times surveyed more than 1,900 US colleges and universities as part of an effort to track outbreaks on campus. Respondents reported more than 120,000 campus-related COVID-19 cases between Jan. 1 and March 2, 2021, but because institutions measure outbreaks in different ways, the NYT reported that this is likely an undercount. Overall, institutions reported more than 535,000 cases since the pandemic began, according to the survey.

Clinical Laboratory Testing Still Ongoing on College Campuses

School administrators told The New York Times that despite questions about the usefulness of screening tools, this approach is still worthwhile as reminders for students to follow other protocols, such as mask wearing.

And universities have not abandoned testing for COVID-19. For example, The New York Times noted that students at the University of Idaho are tested at least twice each semester, and the school is also testing wastewater to identify outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2.

The Ohio State News, a publication of Ohio State University, reported in late February that it had tested 30,000 people in a single week, accounting for 12% of the COVID-19 tests conducted in Ohio. At the start of the fall semester, the university was sending test samples to a private company in New Jersey, but later it began processing samples at the on-campus Applied Microbiology Services Lab (AMSL).

“By the start of spring semester, the AMSL was processing about 85% of Ohio State’s COVID-19 tests,” the university reported, for a likely savings of $30 million to $40 million. Leaders of the testing program expect that they can realistically conduct 35,000 tests per week.

Chris Marsicano, PhD from interview screenshot
Chris Marsicano, PhD (above), a professor and researcher at Davidson College, told Inside Higher Ed that many institutions are relying on antigen testing, which is less costly but also less reliable than PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests. “PCR tests are expensive,” he said. “Just because you’re testing multiple times a week doesn’t mean you’re catching all the cases.” Marsicano leads the institution’s College Crisis Initiative. Clinical laboratory leaders can attest to Marsicano’s statement. (Photo copyright: Twitter.)

Using Technology for COVID-19 Contact Tracing

In addition to symptom screening, some universities have adopted technologies that track student movement on campus for contact-tracing purposes. But again, the benefits are questionable. For example, Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Mass. asked students to scan QR codes at various locations, but only one-third were doing so, The New York Times reported. Another system at the university records entry to campus buildings when students swipe their IDs.

“We found what we need is tests and more tests,” clinical psychologist Christopher Frazer, Psy.D., Executive Director of the university’s wellness center, told The New York Times. He said that students on campus are tested once a week. When they have tested positive, contact tracers “often learned much more about infected students’ activities by calling them than by examining their location logs,” the NYT reported.

Colleges and universities are also banking on vaccination to reduce the spread of the virus, Inside Higher Ed reported. Some will require all students to be vaccinated for the fall semester, but such mandates are facing legal and political hurdles. For example, executive orders by Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis may prohibit institutions in those states from imposing vaccination requirements.

As colleges and universities struggle to deal with the challenges of COVID-19, clinical laboratories have resources for staying up to date on current testing and tracking technologies in use on campuses. For example, the CDC is funding a program to facilitate sharing of best practices and other information. Inside Higher Ed reported that the Higher Education COVID-19 Community of Practice (CoP) will include a discussion board, webinars, and a searchable database of info uploaded by participating institutions.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

Colleges That Require Virus-Screening Tech Struggle to Say Whether It Works

New Effort Shares COVID-Fighting Practices

Behavioral Change Approaches to Promote COVID-19 Mitigation Behaviors Among Students

Vaccine Mandates: The Next Political Battlefront

Large Institutions Reporting Fewer COVID-19 Infections Now Than Fall

Cases Rise (Again) on College Campuses

Colleges Promise Return to In-Person Classes for Fall

Coronavirus Cases Around Colleges and Universities Are Colleges Superspreaders?