From the beginning of the semester, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville has seen daily COVID-19 cases far greater than the Harvard Global Health Institute's threshold for the "tipping point for uncontrolled community spread."
While other colleges and universities anticipated such situations and developed concrete, preemptive plans for widespread testing, contact tracing and supported isolation or quarantine spaces, UTK had no plans for a controlled campus. How can the university bring the severe COVID-19 situation on campus under control? The University of Tennessee, Knoxville needs to conduct extensive COVID-19 testing.
Since reopening campus in August, the University of Tennessee has opted to echo Trump administration health guidance practices to limit COVID-19 testing only to students who are symptomatic or in close contact with carriers. Contrary to that guidance, research has vastly coincided with the need for easily accessible, frequent testing for colleges to reopen safely. A report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this past week found that testing and other mitigation measures might have averted at least one of the early campus closures in North Carolina.
However, the University of Tennessee continues to ignore the idea of an extensive testing strategy.
Last Tuesday, when asked about the concern of the upcoming mass gathering in Neyland Stadium and the idea of conducting extensive COVID-19 testing on the student residential body before Saturday’s football game, Chancellor Donde Plowman responded, “so, the honest truth about that is, is that we would probably do that in stages, because we have 7,700 students in university housing. So, the issue is, then is isolation beds is an issue. So, because as soon as we test someone positive, we have the responsibility, because they are living on campus to isolate them. So, Massey Hall has 580 beds now. So, our capacity has gone up. And there is going — so we are doing some PCR testing in some dorms. But not — we are just — we have got sort of a mixture of strategies, I guess you would say, it seems like it makes the most sense.”
When asked to clarify the reason for extensive testing not being done due to lack of isolation space, Chancellor Plowman stated, “that is a factor, so we are getting the other picture by the other two approaches, and we will, because the issue is that most people are asymptomatic.”
Research suggests that 40% to 45% of individuals who contract COVID-19 will remain asymptomatic. However, according to the CDC, current best estimates predict that an asymptomatic individual is 70% as infectious as a symptomatic individual. When told about the concern that asymptomatic individuals are a dangerous part of the disease, Chancellor Plowman responded, “Yes. That is right and it is dangerous to this community.”
When concern was expressed that the campus situation is much worse than the university graphics illustrate, Chancellor Plowman responded, “I agree with you.”
The testing strategy is vastly different for student-athletes who are competing in fall sports. Student-athletes will be required to test to take a 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.
The administration's neglectfulness to instate an extensive and effective testing strategy on the general student body versus the student-athletes begs the broader question of why the university is taking a different approach to the general student body.
Thus far, the minimal planning and reactionary approach have proven grossly inadequate. The need for transparency, concrete strategy and practical action cannot be understated. Why are we putting our greater community at risk?
Alex Zukowski is a senior majoring in Accounting. He can be reached at TZukowsk@vols.utk.edu.
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