COVID-19 campus safety guidelines undergo changes

Changes to COVID-19 testing frequency and directions as well as to quarantine and isolation protocols were enacted for the spring 2021 semester.

According to a Jan. 21 email from President F. Javier Cevallos, commuters with two or more in-person classes and all resident students are required to test weekly. Commuters with only one in-person class are to test bi-weekly with the week determined by the first letter of their last name.

“We have increased the frequency of testing due to the continued surge of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts and in compliance with state requirements, as well as the emergence of a new strain of the virus that is more contagious,” Cevallos stated in the email.

Testing times for the spring semester have been extended, with appointments available Mondays 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Tuesdays 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

According to the data provided by the University’s website, FSU administered 12,410 tests between the dates of Aug. 21 and Dec. 23 with a total of 53 positives. 

During the winter break, from Jan. 4 to Jan. 22, FSU administered 609 tests with a total of 8 positives, according to the website.

So far this semester, from Jan. 24 to March 3, FSU administered 4,590 tests with a total of 10 positives, according to the website.

Ilene Hofrenning, director of health services, said an increase in testing for resident students was recommended by the Board of Higher Education. 

Hofrenning said the University decided to follow their guidance and increase resident testing as well as commuter testing. 

She added the University recommends that Facilities and Sodexo employees as well as faculty and staff who are on campus more than once a week be tested weekly, too. 

“As far as employees go, we can’t mandate that any employee be tested because of the unions,” she said. 

Hofrenning said approximately 150 faculty and staff get tested every week on a voluntary basis.

She added the tests purchased from the Broad Institute are still $25 each.

In an email, Dale Hamel, executive vice president, said the University has “been covering costs [for tests] with local funds with the expectation that the federal stimulus funds – that are “reimbursements for COVID-related costs” – will be used for this purpose.”

During testing, community members are now asked to blow their nose twice and check to make sure the Q-tip is clean of mucus and blood before placing it in the testing tube – instructions that were not given in the previous semester.

Hofrenning said tests results can come back as negative, positive, or invalid, “which means that there’s no DNA on the Q-tip.”

She explained when the test takes place, the system checks for viral DNA and human DNA. If there is viral DNA present, it is considered valid.

Hofrenning said if there is no viral DNA detected, the system checks for human DNA, and if it is not present, then the result of the test is considered “invalid” and another test needs to take place.

Another result of the test could be “test not processed” (TNP), which could be caused by a number of factors, according to Hofrenning. 

One of the reasons is when a Q-tip has too much mucus, so the test cannot take place, she said. Another reason is if the label of the test is blurred.

Hofrenning added at the start of the semester, the Health Center saw an increase in TNPs, and after speaking with the Broad Institute, learned it was due to the winter and people having more mucus. 

With variants of COVID-19 now spreading globally, Hofrenning said the Broad Institute is not testing every sample for the variants, but instead, is doing “surveillance testing for the state.”

She added the Broad Institute tests a percentage of the samples for the variants based on this surveillance. 

According to Hofrenning, if someone has tested positive for COVID-19, they should not get tested again until 90 days later for multiple reasons. 

The first reason she said is someone who has had COVID-19 will most likely possess the antibodies that will guard them from contracting it again for at least 90 days.

She added the other reason is that the Broad Institute tests are “really sensitive,” and will pick up on pieces of the dead virus giving the person a false positive. 

Hofrenning said some professors were asking for reassurance that their students were being tested, so the Health Center now provides the dates – not the results – of when a student last tested for the student to show if needed. 

She added for those students who would not be receiving tests, they will have a message to show that states not that they were positive, but that they are exempt from testing. 

According to Hofrenning, those who have received the vaccine should still get tested. 

She said this is because even though the vaccines are “90-95% effective,” there is still “at least a 5%” chance of contracting COVID-19.

She added another reason for this is because of the COVID-19 variants. 

“That recommendation might change once we have more information about the vaccine,” Hofrenning said.

Another change this semester is to the time duration of quarantine and isolation in Linsley Hall for students exposed to the virus. 

“I think people who were in isolation or quarantined in Linsley – I think that was difficult,” she said. “I mean, for anybody it would be tough. So, this semester we have some plans in place for trying to make it easier.”

Hofrenning said, “Isolation refers to people who test positive for COVID. Quarantine refers to someone who has been exposed, but has not tested positive – yet.”

She added, “So, someone who tested positive has to be in isolation for 10 days either from the day they first developed symptoms, or if they are asymptomatic, the day they were tested.

“If someone is exposed, but tests negative, they have to be in quarantine up to 14 days,” she said. “If they have any symptoms, they have to be in quarantine the full 14 days.”

Hofrenning said, “If they test positive after day five, they can get out of quarantine on day eight, and monitor their symptoms through day 14. Or they can get out of quarantine on day 11 without a test and monitor their symptoms through day 14.”

One of the problems the Health Center has been having with testing is community members who go to the gym testing site who are already experiencing symptoms, according to Hofrenning.

She said often when there is a positive case of COVID-19, the person had completed the symptom checker before getting tested, but answered “no” to all the symptoms despite experiencing some of them.

“I don’t think people are necessarily consciously lying, but I think in everybody’s mind they’re thinking, ‘Well, this is just a cold. It’s not COVID, so I’m just going to say no,’” she added. “And a lot of COVID symptoms can be mild, can be just like a cold – like a stuffy nose or a sore throat or a headache or something like that.”

Hofrenning said anyone who is experiencing symptoms should go to the Health Center immediately to get tested. 

Pam Lehmberg, manager of public health initiatives for COVID-19, said another issue the testing site had was with the Broad Institute software.

During one of the testing days, the software had crashed, and registering people, which usually only takes a couple seconds, began taking “a minute and a minute and a half, so the whole process was really slowed down,” Lehmberg said. 

The Health Center has enacted express lanes at the testing site where students can complete their test without observation. 

Hofrenning said the University was approved by the Broad Institute to conduct “unobserved testing.”

Lehmberg said many community members are tested on a weekly basis, “so there’s a whole population of people who are very, very good at swabbing.”

According to Lehmberg, the Health Center is looking into the possibility of playing music at the testing site, and has received approval from Athletics to do so.

She said, “The testing site has a really nice feel to it, and a lot of that has to do with the students that come in and how patient and pleasant they are.”

Some students said they feel last semester’s testing went well, and shared their thoughts on increased testing this semester.

Tyler McKeen, a freshman psychology major and resident, said last semester’s testing “went OK,” and it was “well organized,” but wished there had been more testing overall.

McKeen said the increased testing this semester is going to “help cases decrease and it keeps better tabs on everything.”

Tanisha Jean, a junior child and family studies major and resident, said last semester, the University handled negative cases “very well.”

Regarding increased testing this semester, Jean said as a student worker, she gets tested every week anyway. 

“I find it better, so that way, I’m not too anxious not knowing whether I have been exposed or not,” she said. “Same thing with residents – it’s better knowing every week than waiting every other week to find out.”

Alexandra Hebert, a sophomore psychology major and resident, said last semester’s testing went “all right,” but more testing “would’ve been better.”

Hebert said, “I definitely think that it was a good decision to increase testing – especially for resident students – as it allows the University to be aware of cases, and decreases the number of people exposed.”

Jack Brodette, a sophomore information technology and business major and resident, said the University had a few cases of COVID-19 last semester, and they were handled “pretty well.”

Judea Blake, a freshman psychology major and resident, said testing last semester “went great.”

Blake said, “It was very well organized and quick. The only thing I don’t like is the hand sanitizer, but that’s not that big of a deal.”

In regards to this semester, she said, “I like that there’s multiple days and that it’s not by last name anymore. That makes things smoother and gives students alternative options if they don’t have time to get tested on that one day.”

Camille Carvalho, a freshman sociology and Spanish major and a resident, said last semester “was very efficient.”

Carvalho added, “They managed to keep the cases very low, but I also know that there were many students who did not even get tested once last semester at the FSU testing site.”

Reflecting on last semester, Lehmberg said, “I’m very happy with the way it went … and the way it’s going this semester.”

She added, “It’s pretty remarkable that we can run our testing site with so many volunteers, and a lot of our volunteers – I think – are the busiest people on campus. Yet, they’ve made time to prioritize keeping the campus safe in any way they can. 

“I think it’s incredible,” Lehmberg said. “It’s made me sort of fall in love with FSU even more.”