University’s testing protocol keeps Covid in check, for now

Signs indicate the Covid test site behind Fulford Hall. Photo by Rob Mohr (C’21).

By Colton Williams

Over three weeks into the Advent semester, Sewanee has recorded very few cases of Covid-19, with a small positivity rate after each of the four rounds of testing: 0.80%, 0.12%, 0.05%, and 0.16%.

This past week, three positive cases in the fourth round of testing resulted in 25 students having to quarantine. 

“For now, campus life will continue as normal with one significant change: gatherings, events, and parties coordinated by student organizations with more than 10 in attendance are NOT permitted until further notice,” wrote public health officials Mariel Gingrich and Mary Heath in a September 6 email. “Other activities will continue without interruption. For example: classes will be held. All Saints’ Chapel services will continue as scheduled. Varsity athletic team practices and conditioning can also continue as planned.”

David Shipps, director of the Babson Center and acting vice president of risk management and institutional effectiveness, told the Purple that, “I’m just in awe with what a very large group of people here in Sewanee have come together to essentially put into motion successfully. It all works as a result of the students embracing and understanding the importance of it, which all indications are that the whole student body does. Having a great test site that works perfectly is one half of the equation, the other half is having students who embrace the importance of it.” 

Sewanee’s relationship with Baylor Lab in Chattanooga is an integral component of the University’s testing procedures. Biology faculty members Clint Smith and Alyssa Summers are working at the lab and were involved in its establishment.

“There’s a nationwide shortage of lab services and testing agents, and we’re very lucky that we have Dr. Alyssa Summers and Dr. Clint Smith working at Baylor Lab and that they have made all of this possible,” said Gingrich, Sewanee’s public health communications officer. 

Shipps emphasized that Sewanee has testing capacity far greater than its size, and that the University’s ability to procure reliable testing is only matched by much larger institutions.

“It’s the envy of higher education in many respects,” Shipps said. “The only other institutions that are doing it are huge institutions. For example, Northeastern has spent $50 million to create a lab that’s going to test their students twice a week, Yale has a whole medical school and they’ve created their own system. The comparables who are doing essentially what we’re doing are very large, enormous institutions with deep resources.”

He went on to add that the University is making such an investment in testing because it is the most effective way to track outbreaks of the virus. By having quick, reliable, and effective testing procedures in place, the University can pursue its “strategy, which again, is staying open and maintaining that residential on-campus experience,” he said. 

Even with strong testing, due to the nature of the pandemic, an outbreak could occur at any time. 

“We think about safety incorrectly. It’s not all or nothing,” said Gingrich. “It’s not ‘I got a negative test result, let me throw off my mask and throw caution to the wind.’ That’s not how it happens. It’s a give and take and it’s an additive process. A negative test result is great, but you still have to keep up with the masking, you still have to keep up with the hand hygiene, social distancing, the things like that, because that is what allows you to take liberties elsewhere, i.e., having in-person classes which is inevitably risky.”

Dr. Mary Heath, public health medical officer, said that students, faculty, and staff still have to be aware of the risks inside a ‘bubble.’

“We can do all we want to do all day long with students at the university, and the faculty, and the staff, all of them can be protected,” Heath said, “but if the rest of our interactions are a little bit outside the bubble… there’s a lot going on that we can’t control.”

On campus, the public health officials are most concerned about large gatherings that involve alcohol. 

“People unmasked, maybe drinking… Not wearing masks, inhibitions are lowered, and they’re just not as thoughtful and mindful as they normally would be,” said Gingrich. “That safety pile is additive, and it doesn’t matter if you had a negative test result the day before, if you come into contact with somebody who is positive, that result is now null and void.”

Given the successes of the University’s testing protocol, and despite the ever-present risk, Shipps, Heath, and Gingrich were all optimistic about students being able to complete the semester on campus. “Fatalism is lame,” Gingrich said. “There’s this contingent that is very apathetic, that doesn’t want to get with the program, that thinks we’re all going home, but that’s lazy.”

She emphasized that while all risk cannot be eliminated, if people adhere to the rules and guidelines, it makes it much more likely that classes will proceed this semester on campus.

“Every day is a victory in many respects because we’re testing and we’re getting results,” Shipps said. “But today is a question mark. We’ll see if we’re victorious again.”