University officials have championed a substantial decline in the amount of COVID-19 cases within the past several weeks. This sentiment appears to parrot the Trump administration's strategy that COVID-19 will simply go away if we don't test.
Why is our University not taking the actions recommended by public health experts? While other colleges developed concrete, preemptive plans for widespread testing, contact tracing and supported isolation or quarantine spaces, UTK had no controlled campus plans.
On Friday, October ninth during the COVID-19 update, Chancellor Donde Plowman claimed, “So we're now several weeks into our comprehensive testing strategy. We have a testing strategy. We are implementing it.”
The Chancellor makes this claim despite that as of October eighth, UTK tested on a seven-day average, 12 students a day for COVID-19. That is for a campus student population of approximately 30,000. In the seven-day total, UTK had only tested one in 370 students for COVID-19.
On the other hand, UTK seems to recognize the importance of COVID-19 when it comes to student-athletes who are competing in fall sports. Student-athletes are required to test for COVID-19 three times a week. The university is utilizing the SEC designated provider, Pacific Architects and Engineers, as a third party designee to provide COVID-19 testing services for student-athletes during in-season fall sports. Student-athletes are not limiting the testing capacity for the Student Health Center.
Instead, the Chancellor uses the University’s pooled saliva efforts on residential students as supporting evidence to the University as a whole having a “comprehensive testing strategy.” The University started pooled saliva efforts in late September, seven weeks after students moved onto campus for the semester. The university opted to continue this effort despite researchers at the University warning in July that October would be “far too late to implement the saliva testing program.”
According to the University’s Department of Microbiology, in regards to pooled saliva testing, “it works by combining individual saliva samples together—from residents of a floor in a dormitory, for example—increasing throughput and allowing for testing more people, thereby saving time and resources.” Pooling specimens together eliminates the University's ability to identify specific individuals with COVID-19 and instead requires the University to notify students in pools identified to have traces of the virus to follow up with the Student Health Center for further testing. The University does not require students identified in pools to follow up with the Student Health Center.
On Friday, Dr. Gregg also noted that issues arise when students who contracted COVID-19 at a previous date participate in pooled samples. These students may still have remnants of COVID-19 in their system that could trigger a change in the pool’s treatment. Therefore, the lab processing saliva samples must set a threshold for COVID-19 RNA concentration identified in the pooled samples that trigger the COVID-19 positive pool classification. The University has declined to provide the threshold in this effort.
Thus far, five residential locations on campus have provided saliva samples for this testing strategy. The current average participation rate for these testing efforts is an outstandingly inadequate 58%. The University declined to provide information past what was said by Dr. Gregg and Chancellor Plowman this Friday.
Even though pooled saliva efforts leave out nearly 22,000 UTK students who don’t classify as residential, piling a participation rate of 58% dismantles any claim by Chancellor Plowman that our University is conducting a “comprehensive testing strategy.” The Chancellor claims that students will face disciplinary action from the student code of conduct for not participating in the pooled saliva efforts. Blaming the students for the shortcoming of the administration will not solve this problem. Chancellor Plowman and The University of Tennessee’s administration needs to take responsibility for this situation.
The administration's delayed and inadequate actions concerning testing beg the broader question of what they are doing to plan for students returning home for the semester. Thus far, the minimal planning and reactionary approach have proven grossly inadequate. The need for transparency, concrete strategy, and practical action cannot be understated. When will Chancellor Plowman and the rest of UTK’s administration take responsibility?
Alex Zukowski is a senior majoring in Accounting. He can be reached at TZukowsk@vols.utk.edu.
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