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Though the University of Michigan provides free COVID-19 testing to symptomatic students, some asymptomatic students are opting to get tested off-campus.
Engineering senior Maya Getachew was tested at University Health Service as well as an outside urgent care center. Getachew said the UHS process was faster, but the restrictions on who is eligible for testing frustrated her.
“I kind of had to lie on my form to get an appointment,” Getachew said. “But once I actually went in for the test, really fast, I was in and out of the building within like five minutes. With urgent care, there was a little bit of a wait, but it was pretty much the same thing, once I got the test I was out in like 30 seconds.”
Getachew said she got her results back from UHS in less than 24 hours, while it took the urgent care about three days.
The University is currently testing all symptomatic students through UHS. Students with symptoms can fill out an online survey to see if they qualify for testing, and a UHS employee is supposed to call and schedule an appointment usually on the same day. Other local testing sites are run through the Washtenaw County Health Department, and vary from local urgent cares to pop-up testing locations across town.
Andie Ransom, who co-leads COVID response at UHS, told The Michigan Daily that the University’s testing capacity has significantly increased from the beginning of the year. According to Ransom, the requirements have changed so that any student who has been exposed to the virus can get a test at UHS.
“When COVID first started, we were very limited in what we could do,” Ransom said. “And so this new expanded testing feels really good for us because we want to do what’s right for the student. And (being exposed is) worrisome. We want to make sure that these students are getting the testing that they want.”
In an interview with the Daily, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel said that he had instructed UHS to ease up restrictions on who could receive a test, in order to encourage students to get tested.
“We’re telling (UHS) to ease up because we want students to use UHS,” Schlissel said. “It’s free, it’s convenient, there’s a one-day turnaround time, and we can work with students immediately when they get a positive result to help assure their health and to make sure it doesn’t spread to others, so we’re going to have the UHS folks be a little more relaxed … You know, we want to test you.”
The University has said it would test approximately 3,000 asymptomatic students a week through a voluntary surveillance testing program, with plans to ramp up capacity to 6,000 tests per week beginning in October. According to the University’s COVID-19 website, more than 3,100 students combined have been tested through the surveillance program in the last four weeks.
After concerns regarding the accuracy of the school’s COVID-19 dashboard, the University incorporated off-campus positive results, more than doubling the cumulative case count since the start of the school year.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, Washtenaw County health department communications administrator, said the county only receives the number of positive results, leaving the total number of off-campus tests conducted unknown.
The county’s health department has a legal agreement with the University to alert the school of all University-related cases. To check if a positive case is tied to the University, Ringler-Cerniglia said the health department looks to see if the case is connected to an on-campus address or an out-of-state address. Both of these are usually good indicators that the person who tested positive was a student.
“Is it absolutely, 100 percent foolproof? No,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “But our experiences over the years, it works pretty well at figuring out when those positive test results come up.”
Students who get tested off-campus are supposed to report both their positive or negative results to the University on the UHS website. But LSA junior Sophie Gibson, who got tested at Eastern Michigan University, said she was unaware she had to share her result.
“I was told there was a rapid test for free at EMU,” Gibson said. “I did not report my results. I don’t really know how to do that.”
Ringler-Cerniglia said the health department has seen an influx of rapid antigen tests recently. She expressed concern about this trend, as rapid tests have high rates of false negatives.
Urgent care centers and other off-campus testing centers are not required to report their case counts or any other information to the University. Representatives from urgent care centers Michigan Urgent Care and Prognify told The Daily they do not track whether patients are students, meaning they cannot provide the University with information about the student test results. Instead, local urgent cares are required to report positive cases to the Washtenaw County Health Department, which according to Schlissel, works “hand in glove” with the University.
“So they send us those results, we collaborate, and then we do the investigation, case tracking, we provide quarantine,” Schlissel said. “So all that it does when you get a positive test off campus, is it slows down by at least a day, how quickly we can intervene to try to keep a positive case from spreading amongst friends or contacts so it’s not a great strategy.”
A representative from Ann Arbor Urgent Care told The Daily they charge $150 for a COVID-19 test to students without health insurance. The cost can pose a barrier to students who do not qualify for UHS testing.
In a Sept. 25 email, University President Mark Schlissel said he wanted to “emphasize again the importance of students being tested at UHS, especially in light of the numbers of positive cases that we are seeing identified by off-campus testing.”
As of Sunday night, the Maize and Blueprint COVID-19 dashboard showed more than 600 cases since the week of Aug. 30. The University has also confirmed COVID-19 clusters in South Quad, Mosher-Jordan and Alice Lloyd Residences Halls. Additionally, on Friday Washtenaw County exceeded the number of cases needed for administrators to reevaluate on-campus operations.
After coming in contact with a friend whose roommate had tested positive, LSA junior Jordan Wank wanted to get tested for COVID-19 immediately. He said he opted for UHS because he thought the result would come back faster.
“(It was) very easy,” Wank said. “I was handed a sticker and then I gave it to a doctor and they tested me and then I left. It was 36 hours from the time I contacted them to when I received my results.”
Getachew said she was pleasantly surprised by the quick turnaround of UHS testing, but still has complaints about the University’s overall testing situation.
“I do still believe that the school is doing a lot of under-testing, and I don’t believe I should lie if I’ve been exposed to someone in order to get a test,” Getachew said. “So I think my frustration is still very real with the fact that it’s not as easy to get a test from the school, and my first option was to go to urgent care.”
Some public health experts have been critical of the University’s plans for testing, saying it is not expansive enough to keep the virus in check.
Ransom said she understands that off-campus tests may seem appealing because students can just walk in. However, Ransom said it is either less reliable or takes longer than in-house tests at UHS.
“Outside testing facilities are either using an unreliable rapid test that then has to have a confirmatory PCR (nasal swab) test, or they’re using PCR tests through the state of Michigan, which is three to five days until you get your result,” Ransom said.
Ransom said because UHS uses Michigan Medicine as its lab site, most students get results in 24 hours. She encouraged students to test at UHS if they can and stressed that a UHS test does not require students to quarantine on North Campus.
She added that a negative test does not remove the burden of quarantining for 14 days.
“Students who have a high-risk exposure will need to quarantine for 14 days, even if they have a negative test result,” Ransom said. “So the test result being negative does not free them from quarantine early. We want to make sure that everyone here on campus is safe, and so doing your part to kind of minimize risk to other students is really important.”
Daily Staff Reporters Dominic Coletti and Jenna Siteman can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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