Get involved, get tested

by: Nicole Harris

Surveillance testing – two words that most college students never want to hear together in a sentence. Unfortunately, too many of them ignore these words when it matters most.

Let’s break it down. What is surveillance testing? According to the CDC, surveillance testing is “the ongoing, systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of health-related data essential to planning, implementation, and evaluation of public health practice.” Essentially, surveillance testing is a fancy way to refer to random testing of a non-symptomatic population. Since the beginning of the school year, Whitworth has sent emails asking randomly selected students to participate in this type of testing.

Surveillance testing, or randomized testing, is only one type of testing, though. Three types of testing can be used – signs and symptoms, targeted, and surveillance. Signs and symptoms testing is completed after a person has been symptomatic for two or more days. Targeted testing, on the other hand, is conducted on populations that engage in elevated risk, such as athletes. The combination of the three types of testing is how Whitworth plans to monitor and manage any outbreaks.

But, how could the university possibly know if they are testing enough people enough times? Ideally, Whitworth would test the entire campus population weekly, if not daily. Colby College in Maine is taking that approach this year. According to The Washington Post, they will test students, at minimum, twice a week. This testing process alone will cost a minimum of $2.5 million. Since such a plan is not financially viable at Whitworth, randomized testing is the next best solution.

Over the summer, Whitworth devised a plan keep students safe, using the advice of Dr. Bob Lutz and Dr. Mark Springer from the Spokane Regional Health District. According to Whitworth’s COVID Care Team leader, Randall Michaelis, “we have divided the campus, for on-campus, into what we call ‘pods,’ but basically they’re quadrants. So, we’ll do a couple of residence halls, randomizing them, at a time. By randomizing, we are increasing the likelihood of this actually giving us better data.”

Randomizing is exactly what it sounds like. Think of an unfinished puzzle. To take a random sample, one takes a handful from the box. Placing those pieces down gives one a better idea of the complete picture. Testing only signs and symptoms or targeted students is like only grabbing the edge pieces. Whitworth would have the layout to the puzzle but overlook essential data from the center. 

To encourage students to participate, Whitworth has opted to use a less invasive swab for randomized testing. However, this message seems to have been lost upon students. Perhaps people aren’t reading their emails, or they are unsure of what the campus officials are asking from them. Neither is an excuse for inaction.

A single asymptomatic person could potentially infect the entire campus. Asymptomatic presentations of COVID-19 are startlingly common. According to The New York Times, experts estimate that nearly 40% of those infected with COVID-19 will never develop symptoms. This fact does not mean these people do not spread the virus – hence the need for randomized testing.

The burden now lies on the student body. According to Randall Michaelis, roughly 30 out of every 100 students asked to participate in surveillance testing fail to show up. Random testing can only be effective if everyone opts to participate. Whitworth students have not answered the call.

Wear your mask, wash your hands, get tested.