As the coronavirus pandemic has evolved over the past year, Penn State’s testing strategy for the virus has, too. This spring, Penn State increased random testing to 2% of its students, faculty and staff a day compared to 1% a day in the fall semester.
According to Suresh Kuchipudi, Penn State professor of immunology and microbiology, testing 2% of the population a day improves the detectability of the coronavirus rather than stopping transmission entirely. Penn State’s consensus is that it’s impossible to create a testing system that completely halts the virus — much of reducing transmission rates is up to the Penn State population itself, Kuchipudi said.
“There are a whole set of mitigation efforts put in place to help. They’re all designed to keep us safe,” Kuchipudi said.
Penn State has various “layered testing efforts,” according to Kuchipudi, that work simultaneously to keep everyone safe. The efforts include random asymptomatic testing, walk-up testing and symptomatic testing offered through University Health Services.
Kuchipudi said the university developed its plans knowing “each of these layers is not perfect, but collectively, all those layers together contribute to a fairly robust method of testing and containing the virus on campus.”
This level of random testing gives the university abilities to monitor fluctuations in the prevalence of the virus on all Penn State campuses, according to Andrew Read, director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.
“That surveillance allows you to watch and therefore modify policy,” Read said. “Knowing what’s going on — making sure we’re containing it on campus — limiting as much as possible, that is all very important.”
The asymptomatic testing has evolved along with the ever-growing knowledge of coronavirus, and the university guidelines have been made to reflect this. Based on the testing strategy and its efficiency from the fall semester, the university decided testing 2% of the population a day was sufficient for this spring.
“What Penn State has been doing is very scientific and data-driven, and is best suited for our students, faculty and staff,” Kuchipudi said.
However, Penn State students didn’t express as much confidence in the testing system. Given the size of the university, Jordyn Dennis and Caroline Brustoloni said they believe the university should be testing “a bit more.”
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The idea of random selection doesn’t sit well with some students either.
“I don’t think it should be random,” Brustroloni (freshman-electrical engineering) said. “I think they should take people from every location, because if someone in one spot is getting [coronavirus], then most likely other people in the same location will as well.”
Dennis (freshman-cybersecurity) said she’s only been selected for random testing once during the spring semester.
Students also expressed their grievances with Penn State’s contact tracing system, noting that they knew of others who had been exposed to coronavirus but asked to not be reported to contact tracing.
“We should just be testing people anyway,” Brustoloni said.
With other Big Ten schools such as Ohio State and Northwestern testing their students weekly, Dennis said she is disappointed with Penn State’s approach.
All undergraduate, graduate and professional students who life off campus, and all students living on campus at Ohio State are tested weekly. Northwestern requires all undergraduate students to be tested twice weekly, and most graduate and professional students to be tested either weekly or every other week.
“I’m tested more like once a semester. It’s a bit ridiculous that other schools are testing way more frequently than us,” Dennis said. “If we were tested maybe like every two weeks or so, I would feel safer here.”
Penn State spokesperson Wyatt Dubois said the daily testing of 1-2% of the population is “sufficient” to identify trends and monitor changes in the virus.
The testing strategy was changed in February to “to increase the use of walk-up testing among students and implement additional rapid testing at the various testing locations on the University Park campus,” Dubois said in a statement.
As State College is currently experiencing the tenth-worst metropolitan coronavirus outbreak in the country, according to the New York Times as of March 31, Dennis said she thought Penn State could have prevented this outbreak if it did more testing.
“It’s a huge risk,” Dennis said. “I do think Penn State can do way better.”