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University of Illinois, partner in UW spring testing, surpasses 1 million COVID-19 tests

December 18, 2020 By Eric Hamilton

A mobile lab run by University of Illinois System subsidiary Shield T3 was set up Dec. 11 in Lot 64 near the WARF building. The lab will conduct diagnostic PCR testing of saliva samples collected at sites across campus from students and employees starting in January. Photo: Bryce Richter

Beginning in January, the University of Wisconsin–Madison will implement a new campus safety and testing program, adapted from a successful system called Shield T3 that was developed by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

This week, UIUC surpassed the 1 million test mark using their unique high-capacity saliva-based testing approach that represents 10% of all COVID-19 tests in Illinois and at times as many as 2% of the tests in the nation.

Through the program, UW–Madison will provide up to 70,000 tests a week, with testing available seven days a week, to frequently test all students and employees. This approach will ensure cases are detected early, a critical step to interrupting transmission of the disease.

“We look forward to adding to our existing testing program, contact-tracing efforts and other safety protocols to ensure that our students, employees and the broader community remain safe,” says Jennifer Noyes, vice provost for academic operations at UW–Madison, who is leading the spring semester COVID-19 response.

To ensure that COVID-19 cases are detected early, and that sick individuals isolate quickly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says testing must be as frequent and widespread as possible. To that end, all students in the Madison area will be tested twice a week starting in the spring semester. All employees who work on campus will get tested at least once every eight days.

“The goal is to prevent runaway growth of the epidemic on campus and in the community,” says Nigel Goldenfeld, a professor of physics at UIUC who leads disease modeling on the Illinois campus. “A lot of transmission comes from a small number of people, and you don’t know in advance who they will be. And a lot of transmission comes from asymptomatic people. So that’s why you have to test everybody.”

Like most universities, UIUC experienced a sharp increase in cases as the fall semester began. Yet thanks to high levels of testing, the daily positivity rate generally hovered in a range between 0.1% and 0.4% with the largest spike the day before classes of 2.9%. The rapid decrease in positivity after brief spikes showed that testing was effective in identifying the majority of positive individuals, and that isolation and quarantine suppressed the transmission.

Included in the enhanced UW–Madison approach is the Safer Badgers app, a one-stop-shop for all COVID-19 needs on campus. Through the app, students and employees can schedule their tests, receive their results, and gain access to campus buildings by flashing their Badger Badge. This simple, color-coded screen will not show any private health information. It will only indicate if someone is up to date on their COVID-19 testing.

The Safer Badgers app also offers an anonymous proximity-sensing feature. The feature uses Bluetooth to detect which devices have spent prolonged periods together in recent days. If one user tests positive, recent close contacts are automatically notified of their potential exposure, without disclosing any identifying information about the positive individual. The feature does not track a user’s location data or history and can be turned off.

At UIUC, where nearly 50,000 users are signed up to receive proximity alerts through the Safer Illinois app, more than 1,100 notifications have gone out to date. Those nearly instant notifications have provided the earliest possible opportunity for students and employees to quarantine themselves and seek out additional testing.

“What the exposure notification does is give you an additional layer of protection,” says Robin Neal Kaler, the associate chancellor for public affairs at UIUC. If an anonymous contact tests positive, “as soon as someone receives a positive test, you get notified through the app.”

In addition to the new program, existing university COVID-19 protocols will remain in place. The Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory will continue performing frequent testing of residents in Housing. And University Health Services contact tracers will follow up with all individuals who test positive to provide them with important information about isolation guidelines and ensure that close contacts are notified of their potential exposure.