University expands testing requirements as researchers predict hundreds more cases

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A tent and signs indicate a Covid-19 testing site at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's Alice Campbell Alumni Center on Friday, July 31, 2020. The University is conducting free saliva tests for faculty, staff and students with results typically known within 48 hours.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign quietly announced on Tuesday an expansion of its Covid-19 testing by requiring students to be tested routinely even if they live in the community but do not plan to come to campus.

As of last week, only students coming to campus were required to be tested.

But in a mass email to faculty, students and staff on Tuesday Aug. 11, Chancellor Robert J. Jones included the new requirement in a series of questions and answers:

“I am living on campus or in the local community, but all my classes are online. Do I still have to get tested twice a week?

Yes. If you are living on-campus or in the community you will need to test twice a week to remain in good academic standing, even if you are taking a fully online schedule. If you live here you must test. If you come to campus for any reason, you must test.”

Last week Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs Robin Kaler said the students who were in the community but not coming to campus would not have to be tested.

This week she said in an email the university had decided on Monday to change the policy “because we know there’s a high chance they will interact with students who do have in-person classes.” 

Potentially, thousands of students in the community would not have had to be tested because two-thirds of university classes are online. Kaler has said the university does not know yet how many of the 51,000 student population will return to the  community for the fall semester.

Julie Pryde, administrator of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department, hailed the decision.

“That was a University decision, but we certainly support it!” she wrote in an email.

The decision comes during a week when two university researchers recommended in a letter to city officials in Champaign and Urbana that they go back from current Phase 4 of the Illinois reopening plan to Phase 3 to limit the spread of the virus during the surge of returning students. Phase 3 prohibits bars and restaurants from opening except for curb-side pick-up and delivery.

Eric Jakobsson, professor emeritus at the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and Santiago Nunez-Corrales, a PhD student in Informatics sent the letter after their research found that about 800 more people would be infected, 80 would be hospitalized and four would die if Champaign-Urbana stayed in Phase 4.  

Champaign County had 1,737 cases and 19 deaths as of Friday, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The county has reported that 100,000 tests have been performed since March.

The recommendations were the result of a computer modeling of how the disease spread could be hindered through testing, social distancing, the closing of businesses and other factors.

The move back to Phase 3 is suggested to last from Aug. 15 to Sept. 8, once a full round of testing and isolation has been completed for students, staff and faculty at the university. 

“The results of this modeling lead us to suggest returning to Phase 3 constraints for bars and restaurants for about 3 weeks from August 15 to September 8 until the University testing and isolation has gone through its first cycle,” Jakobsson said on Thursday.

Jakobsson said the expansion of testing was “a good thing.” 

“Santiago has done a simulation in which some of the students were not tested as promptly at semester’s beginning as we all would like, and that would indeed cause the surge in the viral infection rate to last for a longer time, necessitating a longer period of more stringent controls,” Jakobsson said.

They said their in-depth analysis estimated that Illinois students returning to campus would have nine times the viral load of the coronavirus currently in Champaign County.  They said the university needed to do extensive testing before allowing people to gather in larger crowds and go to restaurants and bars. 

Last week, compared the ZIP codes of Illinois students’ permanent addresses who attended the university in the last academic year with the rates of infection by ZIP codes collected by the Illinois Department of Public Health. 

The comparison found that more than 20,000 are  from ZIP codes with positivity rates of higher than 5%. The overall positivity rate for Champaign County has been about 2%, and recently lower than 1%.

The World Health Organization recommends that a community not reopen if the positivity rate is 5% or below. Illinois sets a threshold of 8%. More than 10,000 students could possibly return from ZIP codes with rates higher than 8%. At least 1,000 students could return from ZIP codes with rates 15% or higher.

Jakobsson said, “The ideal would be to have every person in the community tested regularly, and provision made for isolating the positives.  This would be close to a complete solution to the problem of the virus.”

UPDATE: Champaign and Urbana mayors talk about the possibility of bars closing during the first three weeks of school.

Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen:

“We are working diligently with CUPHD, Urbana and the University and the owners of these businesses on proposed rules for Bars and Restaurants for the first 3 weeks of school.  These rules do not include complete closure of these businesses.”

Urbana Mayor Diane Wolfe Marlin:

“The City of Urbana is working with the City of Champaign and the C-U Public Health District to draft emergency orders to coincide with the re-opening of the university.    The orders aren’t finished yet.  We expect to issue them sometime next week.”

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