UNH Hosts Panel Discussion on Campus-Wide COVID Testing

Thursday, February 11, 2021

On December 8th, 2020, UNH hosted “Keeping Campus Safe - University-Wide COVID Testing,” a panel discussion about keeping campuses open and communities safe during the current pandemic. The discussion featured several speakers from UNH who have been instrumental in launching the university’s COVID testing lab this past fall. UNH was joined by panelists from Georgia Tech, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne and Purdue University who have all been instrumental in launching initiatives to help keep their campuses open for in-person learning while protecting their communities from COVID-19. The panelists shared the challenges, risks and ultimately the successes they had as they implemented their testing programs.

The event was guest moderated by Amelia Nierenberg, Coronavirus Schools Briefing newsletter writer at The New York Times. During the event, the panelists had a chance to recount the different initiatives their universities launched in response to the pandemic. Panelists from UNH were the first to present their experiences.

University of New Hampshire
Throughout the summer of 2020, UNH stood up its own state-of-the-art COVID test lab to allow students to come back to campus while extensively monitoring and preventing the spread of coronavirus. Completed in the span of 100 days, the facility is certified by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments, or CLIA. UNH developed its own self-administered nasal swab test kits and the lab generates results from most tests less than 24 hours. This aggressive testing protocol, along with wastewater testing and a robust public health campaign, has allowed UNH to provide an in-person campus experience for the roughly 13,000 students on UNH’s three campuses. Marian McCord, senior vice provost for research, economic engagement, and outreach gave an overview and the background of UNH's testing program. “It would have been easier to decide that we were going to go remote, but we had a strong desire to provide an in-person experience for our students,” McCord commented.  “We don't have a medical school and we don't have a college of veterinary medicine, so this was going to be a challenge for us, but it was something that I felt that our faculty and staff were up to taking on.”

Paula Mouser, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, gave a fascinating overview of UNH's successful wastewater testing initiative, which she leads. The initiative serves as a secondary surveillance method for the campus. “What's really unique [at UNH] is that we know, at least in our dorm facilities, exactly how many people are infected at any given time,” commented Mouser. “We can look at how this wastewater signal relates to those infections, and, at least at the dorm level, we see that it's very close to one to one…If the students weren’t being tested  it would provide a great amount of information to tell us that maybe things are increasing in the community.”

Marc Sedam, whose office manages the distribution of student self-swab kits, expressed his confidence in UNH’s testing protocol overall. “We’re testing more frequently, we’re doing it cheaper, we’re doing it more efficiently than almost anyone else. I think it’s one of the best and most successful testing programs in the United States.”

University Illinois at Urbana-Champagne
The panelist from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne was Martin Burke, professor for chemical innovation and associate dean of research for Carle Illinois College of Medicine. Burke is the team leader for UIUC’s COVID initiative called SHIELD: Target, Test, and Tell.

The University of Illinois at Urbana- Champagne implemented a multimodal solution that has successfully mitigated the spread of COVID amongst 50,000 faculty, students and staff. This SHIELD platform centers on the discovery of a direct saliva-to-PCR assay for SARS-CoV-2 that is fast, scalable, cost-effective and free of supply chain bottlenecks. More than 800,000 tests have been performed at UIUC and case positivity rates have generally remained less than 0.5%.  “Fast, frequent testing can help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in a large and diverse university community,” commented Burke. “Testing is not a silver bullet. It has to be integrated into a holistic approach including masks, social distancing, data science and communication strategy.”

The team has helped make the SHIELD platform and its saliva test widely available, and it is now starting to be deployed at a rapidly growing list of other universities in the U.S., including Notre Dame, University of Wisconsin and Carnegie Melon University, and advanced discussions are ongoing for SHIELD deployment with several major corporations in the U.S., and in several other countries, including New Zealand, Philippines and Indonesia. The SHIELD team has also recently received grants from NIH and Rockefeller Foundation to develop a “playbook” to accelerate widespread adoption across the U.S. and the world to facilitate safe reopening of universities and K-12 schools during this challenging time.

Georgia Tech
The panelist from Georgia Tech was Greg Gibson, professor of biological sciences and director of the Center for Integrative Genomics. Dr. Gibson was responsible for designing the COVID surveillance program at Georgia Tech.

For the fall semester, Georgia Tech implemented an interventional surveillance program aimed as providing non-diagnostic pooled testing for 10,000 voluntary participants a week, followed by clinical diagnostic re-evaluation of possible positives. Like UNH, Georgia Tech did not have a veterinary school or a CLIA lab and had to set one up from scratch. The combination of mask-wearing, social distancing, and saliva-based PCR testing was effective in ensuring that fewer than 10% of students became infected, and that staff and faculty were largely protected. Across the semester, we did 122,000 surveillance tests,commented Gibson. “Cumulatively, we probably had around about 10% of the campus infected across the semester. We estimated it would have been at least 20%, if not 30% or 40% if we hadn't done the testing program.”

Purdue University
The final panelist was David Broecker, chief innovation and collaboration officer for Purdue Research Foundation. David is the overall leader for the Protect Purdue safe campus initiative.  

The Protect Purdue plan was created to prepare the campus for the arrival of 40,000 undergraduate and graduate students at the beginning of the fall semester. Organized into seven interdependent work teams (research, learning, residential life, health monitoring and surveillance, buildings and infrastructure, human resources, and communications), the Protect Purdue team was responsible for implementing the plan that included a roll-out of a pledge outlining a set of “new normal” community behaviors, converting an infectious disease lab at the veterinary college into a CLIA certified lab for COVID testing, and building a virtual health center comprised of a medical director, 30 case managers, and 50 contact tracers. “Unlike many of the other schools, we never attempted to test everyone every week,” explained Broecker. “We instead tried to take a much more statistically-based approach, as well as using data capabilities and contact tracing.”  Purdue used saliva-based COVID testing that was originally developed at Rutgers University. The Protect Purdue plan also included leveraging the campus Wi-Fi system to support contact tracing activities, producing over 76,500 pieces of PPE, and converting more than 900 beds into isolation and quarantine space.

Thank you to all the panelists that participated in this informative event. To watch a recording of the panel discussion, click HERE.