Framingham State conducting ongoing COVID-19 testing

After transitioning to online learning for the second half of the Spring 2020 semester, Framingham State implemented a campus-wide COVID-19 testing program for those attending school in person this fall. 

The decision came after the Commonwealth of Massachusetts required all institutions in the state to come up with reopening plans, according to President F. Javier Cevallos. 

In accordance with an initial 10-day onboarding period, residents, commuters, faculty, and staff were required to be tested prior to the start of classes. 

Residents are required to be tested bi-weekly and commuters will be part of a random selection every week. 

According to an email sent out by Cevallos, 790 students are living on campus. Of those, 738 students are from Massachusetts and 37 are from lower-risk states. Those who came from higher risk states were required to produce a negative test within 72 hours of arriving in Massachusetts per the travel restrictions outlined by Gov. Charlie Baker earlier in the summer. 

As of Sept. 24, Framingham State University has administered 3,231 tests. Of those tests, 18 have been positive, 3,191 have been negative, and 22 have been invalid/inconclusive, according to the Framingham State website. 

On the most recent testing date, Sept. 22, 518 people were tested – 512 tests were negative, one test was positive, and five were invalid or inconclusive. 

Currently, the seven-day positive rate is 0.19%, while the 30-day positive rate is 0.56%. 

Testing is taking place in the new gym throughout the semester so long as campus remains open. 

After answering a self-assessment, community members enter the new gym and conduct their own test. 

The test being administered by the University is a Polymerase Chain Reaction test (PCR), which is “sort of the gold standard,” according to the Director of Health Services, Ilene Hofrenning. 

The tests are being distributed by the Broad Institute at a reduced rate for the University, according to Cevallos. 

“The [COVID] testing companies were asking for about $100-$250 per test, while Broad is at $25,” Cevallos said. 

Executive Vice President Dale Hamel said the University received $255,000 from the state to pay for the tests. Any additional funds will be taken from the Health Services budget, but will be replenished by the COVID Expenses Reserve. 

While the vast majority of COVID-19 tests take place in the new gym on Tuesdays, anyone who is experiencing symptoms can request a test from the health center, according to Cevallos. 

“We bought 7,000 tests, I believe, from them [Broad Institute]. And, we’re doing testing Tuesday mornings for anybody who is asymptomatic,” Cevallos said. “If anybody has symptoms, we can do tests immediately.” 

The University’s contract with the Broad Institute also requires the institute to have results back within 24 hours, according to Cevallos. 

Hofrenning said the tests from the Broad Institute have approximately a 99% sensitivity and specificity rate, “which means you would get low false negatives and low false positives.

“Any test can have false negatives and false positives depending on how good the specimen is, how good their procedures are in the lab, and lots of different things,” Hofrenning added. 

“They [The Broad Institute] said to expect 2% to 5% of your tests to be either invalid or couldn’t be processed – and, it’s normal for that to happen. You don’t get enough material on there, or sometimes, there could be too much mucus, or nasal discharge that can affect the result,” Hofrenning said. 

One student, who was granted anonymity, said their test results the first week of classes were lost and as a result, they never got their results for that week. 

“Health Services claimed that my results should have made it to my school email that I provided when I registered for testing,” the student said. “My response to that was to get tested the following week because I thought I had provided the wrong contact info. But, when I went to the check-in desk in the gym, they read me my exact email address. 

“I am still unsure why my first test results were never sent to me, and I was never provided an explanation.” Since then, the student has been receiving their weekly results. 

According to Hofrenning, “If it was anybody who had symptoms, we would repeat it right away. But for screening, we could just have them come back the next week.” 

Another student who also requested anonymity received an invalid result and was retested on the next possible date. 

“Overall, my experience has been good. No one was rude, and I’ve had good interactions with many. Q-tips in the nose always feel strange,” the student said. “They sent me an email saying my test was invalid, so I had to go get retested on the next date they did testing.” 

Earlier in the semester, 10 tests conducted on Sept. 8 came back positive, signaling a cluster originating from West Hall. 

Hofrenning said, “We were able to identify that cluster right away. That person gave me all their close contacts. There were nine close contacts, eight of whom were positive, and we were able to identify, test, and quarantine them within four hours.” 

Cevallos said, “We immediately tested every resident of West Hall on Friday afternoon, and thankfully, they all came back negative.” 

Several students expressed their confidence in the University’s testing system. 

Senior biology major Gabby Cochrane said, “I think that, so far, the University has done a pretty good job. The fact that we had a small outbreak and they took action so quickly was very comforting.” 

She added, “However, I feel like there are many ways the University could improve. I, and many other students, have seen people walking around without masks and it seems as if they are not being reprimanded.” 

Cochrane also said she has seen dining hall workers not covering their noses with their masks. 

“This is a virus that is spread through the respiratory tract, and the nose is a part of that, too,” she added. “I do still think that FSU, compared to other universities, has done a great job of keeping us safe.” 

Senior English major Erin Cook said, “Despite the issues that have piled up for this semester, I think that Framingham is doing a really good job of testing. 

“I think their process is really quick and easy. Accessing results, not only for yourself but overall campus results, is simple. Sure, it’s not a fun Tuesday activity, but it’s over quickly and I am glad I have the assurance that my roommates and I are healthy,” Cook added. 

Resident and commuter students, faculty, and staff are all required to be tested in order to be on campus. 

Dean of Students Meg Nowak Borrego said, “Following the onboarding testing required of all students attending classes on campus, all commuters are placed in a random sample process and are expected to test when contacted. A new random sample group is identified each week. 

She added if students do not test when they are required to, they will be called by the dean of students. Consequently, if students do not follow proper testing procedures, they face being removed from their residence halls and barred from campus until they provide a negative result, according to Nowak Borrego. 

If a student is unable to quarantine at home, Linsley Hall has been reserved as a quarantine space. The University has also made a certain number of rooms in every other residence hall quarantine rooms in the event Linsley Hall fills up, according to Cevallos. 

Along with testing protocols, the University is contact tracing any student who tests positive for COVID-19. 

“An FSU Contact Tracing Team is being formed. This team will receive in-person and on-line training on contact tracing,” Nowak Borrego said. 

“During case investigation, those who have tested positive will be asked about close contacts,” she added. 

According to Nowak Borrego, close contacts are defined as anyone who has been within six feet of a person with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes. 

“The names and contact information will be given to our Contact Tracing Team, who will reach out to them, evaluate their health status, and assist them into quarantine for 14 days since last contact,” she added.  

In addition to students, faculty and staff will also be required to isolate at home for a minimum of 10 days if they were in contact with someone who tested positive, according to Nowak Borrego. 

On top of following regular testing procedures, the University and the state have also put several rules in place in order for people to be on campus this semester. 

According to an order from Gov. Baker, all students in Massachusetts are required to receive the flu vaccine. This includes higher education students. 

Hofrenning said one of the most important steps the community can take is get their flu vaccine. 

She said, “We don’t want to have a flu epidemic and then a COVID pandemic at the same time. 

“A flu vaccine is required for all college students. So, we are having a flu vaccine week and in fact, during two of the testing days, we’re going to have the flu vaccine at the same time,” Hofrenning added. 

During these days, the flu vaccine will be available in the old gym, while COVID tests will continue being conducted in the new gym. 

When asked if planning for the spring semester has begun, Cevallos said, “Planning for the spring is currently underway. It’s too early to say what the spring semester will look like.”