More than 100 people returning to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this week for the fall semester tested positive for COVID-19 even before stepping on campus.
That’s exactly what university officials expected.
As UIUC prepares to start the fall semester on Monday, university leaders say they’re anticipating an increase in positive cases. This week, multiple universities across the country abruptly moved classes online after a surge of COVID-19 cases on campus, causing many to wonder if returning to campus amid a global pandemic is feasible.
But leaders and scientists at the University of Illinois are optimistic they can keep campus open. They believe they can limit to 700 the number of cases this semester. As many as 40,000 students are expected on campus this fall.
Researchers said on a media call Friday that predictive modeling shows they can keep numbers low with the help of a university-developed saliva test, and the requirement that everyone get tested twice per week. If the university did nothing, modeling predicts 30,000 members of the U of I community would contract the virus in the first month.
“None of this is a surprise, we’re ready for it. The modeling predicts we can handle it,” said Martin Burke, a chemistry professor who helped develop the saliva test. “But, it’s critical everyone does their part. These next two or three weeks couldn’t be more important.”
The models are based on 45,000 students returning to campus, but a university spokesperson said they’re anticipating 35,000 to 40,000 students. About 25% of classes have an in-person component this fall.
After two to three weeks, researchers predict the initial bump in positive cases will decline and then they will be able to keep positive cases low with the use of the saliva test.
University leaders say they believe they can manage positive cases because the saliva test results are returned so fast. Therefore, if there’s a positive case, officials can quickly isolate people and do contact tracing, plus continue to require masks and social distancing. All testing will be done at the university’s veterinary diagnostic laboratory, which has been turned into a COVID-19 test center.
The new saliva test was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration under the Emergency Use Authorization Act. U of I performed a study that compared their test to a similar recently FDA-approved test out of Yale University. Test results showed the test at U of I was eight times more likely to detect the virus than the test from Yale. Burke said an initial comparison also showed the saliva test was as effective or more effective at detecting the virus than the invasive, traditional nasal swab test.
University leaders said data from a summer pilot program shows rapid, consistent testing is key to keeping outbreaks at bay this semester. According to data, the positivity rate on campus increased to 1.5% “because of not helpful socialization choices that happened in mid-July.” Burke said because the university was able to continuously test people, they were able to curb that increase.
“As we continued to test, we were progressively crushing that 1.5% down to 0.2% by frequent, fast testing,” he said.
Modelers said they took into account that some people won’t follow the rules, and they anticipate there will be a level of socialization throughout the semester. They simply encourage it to happen safely. Officials said there will be consequences for those who don’t follow the rules, including possible eviction from university housing.
Students, faculty and staff are also encouraged to download a new app called Safer in Illinois, where the university can share test results, allow people to self-report symptoms and use Bluetooth technology to anonymously share if someone was exposed to a community member who tested positive. The university says all of this will help determine if someone is in compliance and allowed in university buildings. If they are denied, they must get tested.
U of I researchers said they expect many of the cases that do show up on campus will be mild or asymptomatic, but there is no way to predict if someone will become seriously ill from the virus. It’s one reason the Campus Faculty Association penned a letter in May opposing U of I’s reopening plans. But local health officials and university leaders said the testing and prevention efforts on campus is an ideal public health situation that health officials are watching closely across the country to see how it could be scaled up nationally.
“Being on campus in many ways … may be the safest place for our young people to be,” said Chancellor Robert Jones. “I can tell you 500 cases scattered across the country in places that don’t have the ability to test and contact trace the way we can do here creates a multiple effect. That 500 becomes thousands without the interventions we have in place.”