To Test or Not to Test?

By Briana Brady, Opinion Editor–

UTC Vice Chancellors Tyler Forrest and Yancy Freeman sent out a joint email earlier last week to the UTC community informing members that starting that week, approximately 1,000 students, faculty, and staff would be chosen to participate in the following week’s “Routine COVID Testing Program.”

According to the Q&A section on the UTC website relating to routing testing, it is possible for an individual to be asked to participate more than once a semester. If an individual has had COVID in the past 90 days or lives out of town, is taking classes fully online, or has symptoms at the time of scheduled testing, they may submit a Waiver Request Form for exemption.

Testing takes place at the Collins Street Annex, located on the edge of campus. While the process is not especially inconvenient since the Center permits participants to theoretically find a time that fits their schedule, it has yet to be seen how much flexibility in scheduling there really is. Additionally, I take issue with the fact that the University is undergoing the staffing efforts, testing costs, and soliciting student, staff, and faculty cooperation to put routing testing in place, yet they are choosing to use rapid tests. According to MD Anderson, these tests are more likely to miss the presence of the virus if the patient is not shedding a high viral load, and could miss some key carriers or low-viral load positive cases.

I realize that in order to implement a routine testing program, rapid tests are really the only practical option. However, while other schools like Sewanee have been really successful in mitigating the spread of the virus on campus through many measures including weekly routine testing, they also have very different campus circumstances, climates, and student populations in comparison to that of UTC. At Sewanee, they have around 1,600 total students. Last semester, their bubble approach, like Vassar’s, meant that students were to remain on campus unless they had an essential reason to leave, like a medical appointment. Campus staff at Sewanee provided rides for students to pick up Walmart orders, and extracurriculars were brought to campus instead of held off campus. However, a residential college in a less urban environment can do that. It’s not practical at UTC.

Therefore, I’m also not sure how practical rapid testing is for UTC. As someone who publicly criticized the University for its lack of mask enforcement at the beginning of last semester, I am all for putting as many measures in place as we can to stop the spread, and I will be a willful participant in those protocols. However, UTC’s significant commuter population as well as the amount of off-campus housing makes it really difficult to maintain any kind of campus bubble, so the person that was tested one week may go out to a multitude of locations the next. Also, while 1,000 people are a lot to test in one week, at a school of over 10,000 students alone, how accurate is that sample pool going to be in reflecting the campus COVID status and/or preventing larger community spread that happens off-campus?

Lastly, while I don’t personally take direct issue with the new implementation of routine testing, I do wonder: Where did we as students, faculty, and staff sign off that we could/would be subject to testing that is “expected?” Somewhere, I’m sure it’s written in a form. But how much power does the University have to, well, technically invade someone’s private health matters? These are most assuredly things I’m thinking about.

As the weather warms up, I hope that more classes can be held outside when possible, masks will be worn both strictly and correctly (OVER the nose, folks!), and that people will simply be responsible about the social choices they make outside of school. With routine testing or without, these are certainly easy steps we can take as individuals to reduce our own potential for spreading COVID-19 in our campus community and beyond.

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