By Daniel Robillard || Investigative Reporter
As the College wrapped-up its first two rounds of COVID-19 entry testing for all students last week, testing operations had finally begun to operate smoothly after facing frustrating set-backs during the early testing phases. However, the College was unable to breathe a sigh of relief as more problems compounded the testing effort. Hundreds of students had still not completed entry testing, some students had never even received first tests, and turnout for the first round of surveillance testing was a major disappointment.
The first of several weeks of entry testing for all students began one month ago, when House Advisors (HAs) arrived on campus on August 14. The College planned to test each student when they arrived first on campus and then again a week after their first test. Those first weeks of testing, primarily during the first round, were burdened with various difficulties related to the testing platform, software, and equipment.
As results for the initial entry tests began coming in—on average, about three days after being tested—dozens of students learned that they had received inconclusive results. Those students were then forced to get tested again and remain in quarantine for another three days as they awaited results while many of their fellow students had their free pass to leave quarantine.
The College Reporter spoke to several students who received inconclusive test results. Many of those students expressed their frustrations about having to essentially repeat the entire testing and quarantine procedure while many of their classmates could return to some sense of normalcy out of quarantine.
Several of these students ended up having to miss their first few days of in-person classes, as they still had not received results on their retests by the time classes started. Some professors decided to move their scheduled in-person classes online for the first few sessions to accommodate the students in their classes who still hadn’t received their results, according to numerous emails and class announcements from professors shared with The College Reporter.
One student living off-campus who had received an inconclusive result said while remaining in quarantine after the retest said, “there was absolutely no sort of monitoring or enforcement to ensure that I remained in quarantine. I could have just gone to class without having received a test result and no one would have stopped me.”
On August 27, a day after classes for Module 1 began, more than 100 students still had yet to receive the results of their first COVID test, despite the College’s goal to have all students complete their first tests before the start of classes.
“I will admit that there were some definite struggles at first, primarily with the software interface between F&M and the processing lab,” Dr. Amy A. Myers, Managing Physician for Lancaster General Health at F&M’s Student Wellness Center, told The College Reporter after the conclusion of the first round of entry testing. “This led to several logistical issues occurring between when the test was ordered and collected on our end, and the processing of the test at the lab end,” Dr. Myers said.
Mike Wetzel, Associate Vice President for Facilities Management and Campus Planning, and Dr. Myers both said that a variety of causes could lead to inconclusive results and that there is no single reason behind them.
While receiving inconclusive results is not unheard of, it is clear that F&M had more inconclusive tests than average. According to the Broad Institute, the testing company that processes all of F&M’s tests, mass testing programs such as the ones used for colleges and universities usually average about 1% of inconclusive or indeterminate tests. Out of the nearly 1.7 million tests that the Broad has processed since March, 0.5% were inconclusive or invalid. “My estimate put F&M at around the 3-4% range for retests needed with the first round,” Dr. Myers said. “Obviously this [having a need for so many retests] was less than ideal.”
Wetzel, who is the College’s testing coordinator and manages all of the day-to-day testing operations at F&M, said that one of the major problems the school faced early on was with some of the equipment that Broad recommended, such as the printers used for labeling the tests.
“There were inherent issues with the testing platform and the equipment Broad recommended, mainly a printer which created badly printed labels,” Wetzel told The College Reporter in a video call on Friday. “Once we took that equipment out of our system, our testing improved after that,” he said. “Before that, we certainly had a lot of retests. We were doing retests for everyone—faculty, staff, students.”
Another issue that compounded the College’s testing problems was related to shipping and turnaround time. Each night, Wetzel ships the day’s completed in a package holding four separate boxes that contain up to 64 samples each through UPS expedited shipping to the testing lab in Massachusetts, where they should arrive the following day. “We had an issue where, when we tested on a Friday, the shipment was not getting there on Saturday, the next day, and was instead not arriving until Monday,” Wetzel said. This meant that some students who were tested before the weekend had their results delayed several days. “Now, I don’t even bother trying to ship tests over the weekend because they will just sit in a warehouse somewhere for several days,” he said.
Dr. Myers told The College Reporter that while many of the early issues have since improved and the second round of testing has required far fewer retests, “that does not take away from the legitimate frustrations felt by many during the earlier phase of testing, especially students in quarantine.”
One of the biggest problems that the College still faces is that some students missed out on testing rounds entirely. The College set up the second round of testing to be done at least one week from the original test “in order to have a better chance of capturing the majority of potential infection that may have been acquired prior to returning to campus but might have been too early in the course for the initial test to be positive,” Dr. Myers told The College Reporter. Recent research has shown that COVID tests can often fail to detect the virus if the person has just contracted it. Thus, the College’s testing strategy risks being ineffective for the many students who either only received one entry test or who received their second test far too long after receiving their first test.
As the College’s Pandemic Operations Response Team (PORT) heralded the successful completion of both rounds of entry testing on September 8 in its weekly update, 169 students—more than 10% of all students coming to campus this semester—had still not received a second test at all, and nearly 30 students hadn’t even received a first test. Wetzel, who helps lead PORT, said that while most of the students who hadn’t received a first test were finally tested last week, many students still hadn’t received a second test nearly three weeks after the start of classes. And, as the first round of surveillance testing was conducted last week, the problem of untested students showed no sign of getting better.
Surveillance testing, which is a key part of the College’s plan to return to campus, consists of testing around 20% of all students coming to campus once every two weeks with the goal of detecting asymptomatic spread, which research has pointed to as being key to any safe return to campus in the fall.
Although the testing process itself went well, the turnout was disappointing, Wetzel told The College Reporter after the first round of surveillance testing on Thursday. In all, about 20% of the nearly 300 students selected for surveillance testing last week did not show up to be tested.
“Ultimately, it comes down to the need to communicate effectively with students,” Wetzel said of the issues that the College has faced in trying to test the student population. “When we were getting ready to do surveillance testing, we noticed that there were a number of students without first and/or second tests, as well as a number of students who didn’t sign the F&M Student Pledges,” he said. Wetzel continued, explaining that when he talked to several of those students, “some said that they had missed the email and didn’t get tested at first; others had misunderstandings.”
Wetzel also noted that “the second test seemed to be much more of a problem than the first test,” as he recounted that many students had scheduling conflicts which made it harder to find available students and get them tested. “There are still even some faculty and staff who have not gotten tested,” Wetzel said.
“The communication piece is certainly lacking,” Wetzel said. “It’s important because the only way we can get a full read of the COVID situation at F&M is to develop a fool-proof way of testing everybody. We need to come up with a way to do that, but everyone has seemed very puzzled on how to get 100% participation,” he noted.
Many other small private colleges and universities in Pennsylvania have linked students’ testing status to everything else they do on campus, as their abilities to attend classes, purchase meals, use their ID cards, and enter buildings are all contingent on whether the student has kept up to date with necessary testing. “Early on, there was certainly none of that,” Wetzel said when asked whether the College had used or considered any such measures. Wetzel did note that there recently has been some discussion of connecting ID cards to testing status.
However, for the more than 50 students who did not receive surveillance testing, it does not appear that they will be tracked down or given another chance at testing. “As of the PORT meeting this morning, the College has no plan to test those who missed surveillance testing,” Wetzel told The College Reporter on Friday.
While the College has had notably few positive cases on campus, the ability to gauge the campus’ number of positive COVID cases among students may be threatened if students continue to miss out on required testing.
Junior Daniel Robillard is an Investigative Reporter for TCR. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org