As Northeastern welcomes students back to campus this fall, the university is conducting frequent testing of all students, faculty, staff, and contract workers to help control the spread of SARS CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
That massive operation, which began on Monday and has already tested more than 2,500 people, will be a crucial surveillance tool to monitor the health of everyone at Northeastern. With some exceptions, most students will need to get re-tested every five days. Faculty, staff, and contract workers will be tested on a seven-day cycle. By Aug. 29, when students start to move back to campus, the university expects to be able to test 5,000 people a day.
By screening everyone regularly and rapidly, Northeastern’s testing operation will be able to identify cases even before a person shows symptoms of being sick.
“If we only focus on symptomatic people, we will still miss the cases that are being transmitted while asymptomatic or presymptomatic,” says Sehyo Yune, who directs the COVID-19 wellness team at Northeastern.
An unusually large number of people who have contracted the coronavirus don’t experience symptoms of COVID-19. For some people, symptoms take a few days longer to develop. Research has shown that even though these people aren’t showing signs of the virus, they can still pass it on to others.
Northeastern’s testing strategy will help ensure that people who are either asymptomatic or presymptomatic be tested and receive the care they need to prevent spreading the virus to others, Yune says.
This type of testing strategy is different from other testing protocols for the coronavirus, including testing random sets of people or only subsets of a population, or when people already exhibit symptoms of sickness.
Northeastern’s comprehensive plan includes initial testing of students upon their arrival on campus, as well as on day three and five, before they can attend classes in person and engage in other campus activities. Then, everyone studying, living, or working on campus will be required to get tested every five days (if they are students) or seven days (if they are faculty, staff, or contractor workers), or whenever they visit campus.
The university is also asking everyone on the Boston campus to use an online Daily Wellness Check to monitor for signs of sickness on a daily basis. Symptomatic people will be asked to stay home, consult with a medical provider, and get tested at a specially designated location on campus.
Widely circulated public health messages have encouraged people with possible symptoms of COVID-19 to stay home to avoid potentially spreading the virus, so focusing on people who might not be aware that they are spreaders is also crucial, Yune says.
“That’s why we want to test everyone—there are just so many people who are asymptomatic but are spreading the disease,” Yune says, adding that for people who don’t feel sick, getting a positive test might be a necessary inconvenience. “It gives us a good idea of the activity level of the disease within the community to take appropriate action.”
Inevitably, Yune says, there will be people who test positive. But relying on fast and ongoing testing at a large scale gives the university the ability to act quickly and early in the face of an outbreak.
That’s why Yune, a physician trained in public health, wants everyone to understand the importance of communicating openly with others in case of a positive test.
Helping the university’s contact tracing efforts is also an integral part of promoting the safety of the campus and the communities nearby, says Yune, who also oversees Northeastern’s contact tracing effort.
Ensuring that everyone go through that testing regimen, as opposed to testing only some parts of the population on the Boston campus, can help the university stay on top of new cases, even if those cases make up only a small part of the people getting tested, Yune says.
“We’re not going to just sit here and say, ‘I think about two percent of our population is positive for COVID,’ because that two percent can quickly become ten percent, and 15 percent,” she says. “We have to identify every single individual that is infected, and identify every single contact that they have been in contact with, and isolate and quarantine, to make our testing effective.”