University expands mass testing for Covid-19

Audriana Edwards, of Med Pro Staffing, prepares to administer a COVID-19 test in Pavia Garage on Tuesday, Sept. 22. Testing stations are sanitized before and after each test by employees wearing gloves, protective gowns, and masks.
Audriana Edwards, of MedPro Staffing, prepares to administer a COVID-19 test in Pavia Garage on Tuesday, Sept. 22. Testing stations are sanitized before and after each test by employees wearing gloves, protective gowns, and masks. Photo credit: Ally Gaddy

As part of the University of Miami’s mass-testing plan, all commuting and residential students are now being regularly tested for Covid-19. On Sept. 12, UM announced that it would be rolling out mandatory testing for all residential students every 10 days at on-campus testing sites at Pavia and Albenga garages, as well as providing tests for off-campus students through Pixel by LabCorp.

As of Sept. 28, off-campus students are required to get tested alongside residential students every two weeks at the same designated testing sites.

Erin Kobetz, head of UM’s testing and tracing plan, has spent the past few months working alongside her team to expand the university’s testing capacity.

“I remain very encouraged by what we’ve accomplished institutionally. I think our testing efforts continue to improve,” said Kobetz, the vice provost for research at UM and a professor at the Miller School of Medicine.

The testing being carried out now is part of a goal set early on by President Julio Frenk. During a student-media roundtable on April 30, Frenk said the university would ideally be able to test all members of the UM community on a weekly basis this fall.

However, the university was not able to do this upon the arrival of students in August. Previously, the only mass-mandated, COVID testing was a kit mailed to all returning students that had to be completed before they moved into the dorms or began attending in-person classes. Then the university began randomly selecting students for testing throughout the beginning of the semester. Before regular, mass testing became available, students, faculty and staff experiencing symptoms were able to access free COVID tests through UHealth.

“We needed to make sure that we actually had the capacity to do this in a way that allowed us to accomplish our goal of efficient testing and to have a good flow,” Kobetz explained, adding that she did not want to have students waiting in long lines to get tested.

To fulfill the mandated testing requirement, students are sent texts to set up appointments online. Prior to their arrival at the Pavia or Albenga garages for testing, students complete an in-depth symptom checker to prevent anyone that has COVID from exposing others.

“We’re not allowing anyone with symptoms to show up at the testing site for fear that they could potentially have COVID and then unintentionally expose a large number of healthy individuals,” Kobetz said. For those that are cleared to get tested, the entire process is often complete in a matter of minutes, and test results are sent back to the students within a 24 to 48-hour window in order to maximize the university’s ability to effectively contact trace, Kobetz said.

Senior Alexander La Barbera, a resident assistant in Hecht Residential College and Student Government Speaker of the Senate, said he was turned away on the first day that he was scheduled to get tested. But since then, he said he’s been able to get tested at the Pavia parking garage in under 10 minutes with results back within 48 hours.

“The vast majority of people that I’ve talked to, both my residents and those in my social circles, have said that it’s gone well for them, and overwhelmingly, I think people are getting tested, and it’s going seamlessly,” said La Barbera, a political science, religious studies, economics and history quadruple major.

Mass-testing began on Sept. 14, as the university tested a separate residential college each day, beginning with Hecht. Gathering data on each residential college helps the tracing team act faster and smarter, Kobetz said.

“The reason why we are using the residential college as the unit of analysis is because from a public health perspective, if we were to see a concentration of cases at that given residential hall or floor, we can act proactively to curb the future chance of transmission,” Kobetz said.

In working to make testing an efficient, easy process for students, Kobetz said, “I don’t want testing to be an onus. I want testing to be a privilege.”

Despite touting the efficiency of UM’s testing sites, La Barbera said he thinks testing should be more frequent for certain groups on campus.

“For the majority of students, I think getting tested every two weeks is adequate. However, for these freshman dorms, and other areas that have a high likelihood to spread COVID, we should be tested more frequently,” La Barbera said, referencing his own freshman building.

Senior Cassandra Garcia swabs her nose for a COVID-19 test at the Pavia Garage on Tuesday, Sept. 22. COVID-19 testing requires swabbing both nostrils for a total of 15 seconds before sending to the lab for processing.
Senior Cassandra Garcia swabs her nose for a COVID-19 test in Pavia Garage on Tuesday, Sept. 22. A COVID-19 test requires swabbing both nostrils for a total of 15 seconds before sending the sample to the lab for processing. Photo credit: Ally Gaddy

Since the start of the semester, the university has had 449 total cases as of Sept. 26, with 261 of those being from off-campus students, a trend Kobetz says she expects will continue. Of the 449, 38 cases have been university employees, who are not included in the biweekly, regular testing. Instead, faculty and staff are currently subjected to random Covid-19 testing.

Kobetz said the reason for this is due to a difference in the risk of infection for faculty and students.

“Our first priority, as it should be, is our students,” Kobetz said, explaining that faculty are only interacting with students on campus and are being provided protection through physical distancing and Plexiglas in the classrooms.

Other employees, such as ABM workers and vendors, will now be included in the university’s random testing plan.

“We consider them to be part of our university family, and it’s critically important that they have the same kind of access to this random testing as a faculty member or more traditional employee,” Kobetz said. “We certainly recognize that some of the contract workers may be more vulnerable on the basis of the work that they do. And so we want to ensure that they can participate in these programs and reap the benefit of participation.”

Beyond cleaning and maintaining all parts of campus, some facilities workers have been asked to deliver food to students in isolation or quarantine.

Inclusion of the university’s subcontracted workers in UM’s testing and tracing plan was advocated for by several workers, along with the support of the Service Employees International Union and UM’s Employee Student Alliance, an organization fighting for better treatment for on-campus workers. This culminated in a protest over the summer on July 23, when ABM workers and members of UMESA gathered outside of Ashe Building and taped a list of demands onto Frenk’s office door.

From the onset of the semester, Kobetz said the university has been providing symptomatic testing to all employees as well as contact tracing, and she said she’s proud to have extended this further.

“I’ve built my career on disparities, on health disparities, and feel really important that good public health practice is grounded in inclusivity,” Kobetz said.