Asa Daniels, Campus Carrier staff writer
In the two latest campus-wide PCR testing events this year, the positive test results were lower than previous rounds of PCR testing. Testing conducted Nov. 17-19 of 2020 led to 35 positive student cases, with two positive faculty and staff cases. The recent rounds of testing, done from Feb. 22 to 24, 2021 had 12 positive student cases and one faculty/staff, according to prior weekly updates emailed by the President’s office. Testing done Mar. 8 to 9 resulted in five positive student cases, according to the most recently updated confirmed cases report on Berry’s website.
A major difference between these two testing periods is that Berry has instituted consistent testing throughout the spring semester. Students were required to complete a PCR test before coming back to campus after winter break and have since taken weekly antigen tests prior to the February PCR tests. Students are now using at-home testing kits every Monday and Thursday, and uploading their results to VikingWeb.
Any apparent indication that student absences from in-person classes were abnormally high, chief of staff Debbie Heida explained, was likely due to Berry’s quarantine policy.
“It depends on how active and engaged socially those students were, so for some people you’re quarantining two other people, for some people you’re quarantining twenty,” Heida said. “It was a particular problem for the Feb. 22 to 24 testing results, as they were delayed.”
The antibody tests results done on Feb. 22 to 24 were also late, which was explained by COVID-19 cases and quarantines at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) testing site, limiting staff availability to process the tests, according to the Week 8 update from the President’s Office.
The antibody tests are important to Berry because they essentially allow the school to exclude people who test positive from any further testing on-campus.
“If we can cut some people loose from this, I think they’d be most appreciative rather than having them continue the testing,” Heida said.
It is also useful because people who have the antibodies would show up positive on a PCR or other COVID-19 test.
“We are obligated to isolate again, which you don’t want to do if you know that it’s really the result of a prior incident,” Heida said.
However, Heida added it would be beneficial for these students to still participate in the antibody test at the end of the semester.“It will help know how long the antibodies stay in peoples’ system if they tested positive at the beginning and it will also then confirm how many other cases we’ve had in the meantime,” Heida said.Students are allowed to opt-out of antibody testing, however, all students are expected to participate in other on-campus testing, including the home-test kits.“It is the testing we put in place so that we can make sure our community is safe, it’s a risk-mitigation,” Heida said.
If a student gets a positive with an at-home testing kit, they should contact the Health Center and schedule for a PCR test to confirm their results. From the Week 8 email, there had been 16 positive at-home tests, but 14 were false-positive.
Students who fail to participate in the on-campus testing, which at this time is largely comprised of the at-home testing kits, will have their visitation rights removed. This includes their ability to visit students in a dorm other than their own or to have students living in another dorm visit their own. A list of students who have failed to participate in testing will be compiled with Residence Life to remove the visitation rights. Residence Life is also going to communicate with the students to encourage future testing participation, Heida said.
For faculty and staff who fail to participate in on-campus testing, their supervisors are notified. This then leads to open conversation between that person and their supervisor to figure out how the person can participate in future testing.
“The good news for most people, students included, a conversation does exactly what we need it to do to get compliance,” Heida said. “I don’t think there’s a case of people who are just balking at being part of testing, it’s trying to get creative and getting things to them so that they can be part of testing.”
Heida believes that part of the non-compliance is likely due to COVID-19 related fatigue.
“People are tired,” Heida said. “They’re just so tired of being tested and I know that, but it’s what we must do and the light is at the end of the tunnel, and we are going to get through this and the vaccines are coming, so, please just do what we need to do to be safe. I know you’re tired of it, trust me, we are too, but it’s what we must do right now.”
Students can opt-out of sending their testing information to the CDC, however, there is no personally identifiable information of students being given to the CDC.
“We’d designed in the fall a unique number that ties to a person here that is a CDC number,” Heida said. “The only thing they get from us is the CDC number and whatever [testing] information – they don’t get any personal identifiable information from us related to a student.”
The at-home testing kits are being done in conjunction with the CDC, who partnered with Berry because Berry is the only college attempting to test its entire campus population regularly. The use of at-home testing is a new concept, Heida said. She is excited to see how this can forward future research.
“It is contributing to the research and we may be able to use it in the future to make things so much simpler for everybody, not just Berry College, but other students,” Heida said. “So, I hope the thought of something bigger than just our campus is a plus for our students – it’s informing future practice.”