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University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel announced the University is taking several steps to increase its testing capabilities during his weekly U-M Ann Arbor COVID-19 update email to the U-M community Feb. 5. 

Starting Feb. 16, the University will require weekly COVID-19 testing for graduate and professional program students living on campus. The University will also offer free testing to “Ann Arbor community members residing near the U-M Ann Arbor campus” through the end of the month and pop-up testing to students in quarantine housing. 

The decision comes after the Washtenaw County Health Department issued a stay-in-place recommendation from Jan. 27 to Feb. 7 to contain an increase in COVID-19 cases as well as an outbreak of the new highly transmissible B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19, the latter of which led to a two-week pause of all U-M athletics. 

Additionally, Schlissel announced University students currently make up almost half of positive COVID-19 tests in Washtenaw County.

In an email to The Michigan Daily, Emily Toth Martin, an associate professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, explained the reasoning behind the decision to test graduate students. 

“We are seeing a higher proportion of cases occurring in graduate students overall compared to at this point last semester,” Martin wrote. “Concerns about the potential of a more transmissible variant heightens the need to make sure that people in any group residence hall is being tested regularly.” 

Martin, a key player in the University administration’s response to COVID-19, wrote the University was offering free testing to residents of Ann Arbor in an effort to help the Washtenaw County Health Department and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services respond to B.1.1.7 variant infections.

“This testing is being offered through the county, and the state and county are offering additional nearby testing sites that are updated regularly on their website,” Martin wrote. “We are working together with the county to test both students and community members living close to campus at the IM Sports Building.”

Ann Arbor residents who are not experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19 and have not had a recent exposure to the virus can get tested at the Intramural Sports Building on Mondays from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. until Feb. 28. There is no sign-up required to be tested.

In an email to The Daily, Dr. Lindsey Mortenson, the University Health Service medical director and the chief of UHS Psychiatry Clinic, wrote that pop-up testing is occuring in areas where an increase of COVID-19 cases have been found.

“Students in quarantine & isolation housing have either already tested positive, or had a high-risk exposure,” Mortenson wrote. “For students in the latter category, UHS and DPSS deliver test kits to them directly.”

Martin wrote the transition to indoors due to cold weather and concerns for increased cases during the winter was the cause of this sudden expansion in U-M’s testing capability. 

“We are hoping that we will be able to get as many local students to participate in weekly testing as we can,” Martin wrote. “Numbers will naturally go up as we test more thoroughly, but we hope this will ultimately reduce the number of big outbreaks that occur on and off-campus.”

At the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, the Graduate Employees’ Organization went on strike to protest the University’s reopening plan. Among their demands of the administration was a “safe and just” pandemic response that increased COVID-19 testing. 

Rackham student Ryan Glauser, GEO COVID Caucus co-chair, said U-M’s expansion of testing was “great,” but that this decision should have been made before the University reopened in the fall.  

“We’ve heard since March 2020 that we need testing,” Glauser said. “This is not coming from me — it’s coming from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control). If you wanted to reopen schools, you needed to be testing people, that was the basic premise of basically all the CDC opening guidelines. So when U-M reopened over the fall, and their testing was incredibly limited … it was a mess.”

Rackham student Amir Fleischmann, GEO secretary, said he has gotten tested every week since returning to Ann Arbor after break.

“(Testing) has been very smooth,” Fleischmann said. “There’s never a line, you just walk in, do the test, it takes five minutes, and walk out. I highly encourage all graduate students to participate in the testing, it’s very accessible.”

Fleischmann also said GEO was “pleased” to see the University expand its testing capabilities, but still resented the administration’s “knee-jerk” reaction to their demands in the fall. 

“I think we would have been even happier if they were doing this when the first calls for it emerged back in September as one of the key demands in our strike,” Fleischmann said. “It’s disappointing to see how hostile the University was to this demand to be taken up originally that they’ve now implemented themselves.”

Sarah Fink King, a year-round resident of Ann Arbor, said that as a community member she felt let down by the University. While she said the decision to expand testing was a step in the right direction, Fink King said it was “too little too late.”

“Testing would have been our early way out of the debacle we’re in, and (the University) chose not to do it and open anyway,” Fink King said. “I think that for me the lack of testing was really disappointing. As an elementary student’s parent in Ann Arbor, where we have been virtual the whole year, while the college students were out and about doing what they wanted (it was very disappointing).”

Fink King, who underwent surgery last year, said she feels uncomfortable and unsafe sending her children to in-person school. She stated she doesn’t blame U-Mstudents because it was the University administration that should have known better.

“These are children or young adults,” Fink King said. “I did not feel like an adult until I was 35. I am not faulting these children. I 100% fault the (University) administration and the Board (of Regents) for knowing better, but getting whatever dime they could. I’m only 45. I’m not trying to get sick and die here. Not only was it woefully under-responsive, it put us all in danger.”

Daily Staff Reporter Jared Dougall can be reached at jdougall@umich.edu.

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