Published on Sat 08/22/20
More than 5,000 Texas A&M students living both and off the College Station campus have been randomly selected for COVID-19 testing and subsequent contact tracing should a positive result be returned. While the testing is voluntary, Provost Carol Fierke said testing could be mandatory in the future.
“We have the authority to make it mandatory,” Fierke said. “For this first round [of testing] we decided to make it voluntary. It is one of our tools for trying to keep track of infection rates on campus, and it is essential that we get a good rate of return. If we don’t get a good voluntary rate, we will make it mandatory.”
As explained on the university’s website, students will be selected at random for the COVID-19 Random Testing Program and contacted through email. The first round of emails were issued Friday, Fierke said. Students who receive an email have 48 hours to schedule a testing appointment. Once an appointment is made, a student will be asked to respond to one of two locations: a tent near the Beutel Health Center, and a soon-to-come space near the Rec Center. The free tests will be self-administered by the students, the website states. Tests are to be conducted via cheek swabs, though nasal swabs could be used in the future, Fierke said.
For any student who tests positive, the university will work to conduct contact tracing.
Contact tracing is conducted at the Health Science Center and are the same people who perform the service for Brazos County, Fierke said.
“When they get the information, I’m told there is a case investigator who will contact [the positive testing] person to try and get more information as to whom they actually came into close contact with and where they were.”
The investigators at the Health Science Center may contact anyone potentially infected by the COVID-19 positive student, Fierke said.
“They won’t tell someone who the person is that has COVID-19, but they will say, ‘We have reason to believe you have come into contact someone who has the coronavirus,’ ” Fierke said.
Students who do not test positive for the coronavirus will not be asked to assist in contact tracing.
In an email to The Eagle, Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, clarified what type of questions positive-testing students might be asked for contact tracing.
“Students will be asked questions that hone in on opportunities to detect where the virus might be located and serving as a source of transmission and infection in members of the Texas A&M Community at B-CS,” Fischer wrote. “Questions include things like whether a person is attending classes in-person, if they are engaging in sports activities, if they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past.”
Students who test negative for coronavirus could be tested more than once, according to the university.
Should compliance with the testing program be low, Fierke said the university is considering how to enforce mandatory testing. In Fischer’s email to The Eagle, she noted that unresponsive students will receive a follow-up email reminder and “possibly might be contacted by our team.”
At this stage of the school year, the testing program applies only to students, not faculty and staff.
“The reasons are that they [faculty members] are much more likely to have symptoms because they are older, and random testing is particularly trying to find students who are asymptomatic,” Fierke explained. “We assume students who have symptoms are already going in and getting testing.”
Fierke said students who test positive for COVID-19 or who do not wish to be tested have the option to attend any of their classes online, as an alternative to on-campus attendance.
“We really hope our students see this [program] as selfless service; something really needed to keep our community safe, and to continue to have an on-campus experience,” Fierke said. “... We want to have our communities be safe and limit the COVID-19 infection as much as possible.”