Dr. Deborah Crawford

As COVID-19 cases surge across both the nation and the world, UT has been conducting saliva tests on students staying in dorms to detect traces of the coronavirus.

While these saliva tests are not a replacement for the COVID-19 tests you can receive at the Student Health Center, they present a method of surveying the virus and understanding how prevalent it is on campus.

In charge of the research team conducting these tests is Dr. Deborah Crawford, the Vice Chancellor for the Office of Research and Engagement. Dr. Crawford and her team use the research labs at UT to examine the saliva samples.

So, why saliva tests? According to Dr. Crawford, they provide a picture of the presence of the virus as well as an efficient way to figure out who should be tested at the Student Health Center.

“When we are collecting saliva samples in tubes, we take five of the saliva samples and we mix them together. This way, we can process many samples at one time. We can process the saliva samples of 500 students by the end of the day,” Crawford said.

By mixing the samples together, the research team can quickly test if a group is positive for the virus. If the mix does test positive, the students who were apart of the mix are reached out to by the Student Health Center for potential positive cases.

Dr. Crawford further notes that by conducting these tests in the residence halls, the research team can examine the prevalence of the virus on campus, and this can influence how much the campus decides to open up or close down.

However, Dr. Crawford also says that one of the greatest benefits of the saliva test is that it could potentially identify asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

Most individuals who go to the Student Health Center to receive a coronavirus test usually do so because they already exhibit at least one of the symptoms of the virus. Since the virus can spread through asymptomatic carriers, testing entire residence halls provide a chance of identifying asymptomatic carriers.

For the past month, saliva tests have been conducted at UT residence halls Hess, White, Dogwood and Magnolia, and some of the fraternity houses as well.

Matthew Lynn, junior and RA at Hess Hall, shared his observations of the tests being conducted at the dorms.

“From my perspective as an RA, the students that are living on my floor and in Hess Hall have overall been very receptive and cooperative with the coronavirus response efforts by the University of Tennessee,” Lynn said.

“The majority of my residents are first-year students, and I have gotten the sense that they feel excited about being at the university and understand the necessity for comprehensive testing methods.”

However, saliva tests are not a perfect solution to identifying the virus all of the time. Dr. Crawford points out that, much like the nasal swab tests, there can be both false positives and false negatives as well.

Students who take part in the saliva test can also make mistakes when providing a sample. A saliva sample is best collected in the morning as soon as the person wakes up and before they brush their teeth or eat. Therefore, students may sometimes send in a flawed sample of their saliva that reduces the reliability of the tests.

This is also part of the reason why the research team is hesitant to do saliva tests on faculty and off-campus students since they also lack the direct access they otherwise would have with on-campus students.

Still, Dr. Crawford asserts that thorough testing is the best way to combat the virus.

“Using both saliva and naval swab tests together provides a powerful combo for fighting the virus,” Crawford said.

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