As part of its Return to Campus plan, USF began on Monday testing students weekly and at random for COVID-19, whether they are exhibiting symptoms or not.
The university will be randomly selecting around 300-400 students each week to test. While the tests will be free of charge, some students have mixed reactions on the nature of the punishment for electing not to participate in the random testing.
Andres Duarte, a 2017 USF graduate with a degree in finance and a prospective master’s student, called the process of random testing “ridiculous.”
“A school is following the herd instead of standing up for the rights of the people,” Duarte said. “It feels like ‘1984’ and like this is part of a big psychological change for the masses. Wearing masks and restricting daily activities, like it’s part of a bigger scheme that can’t be done overnight.”
Duarte said if he was to be selected for a random test he would refuse it, even knowing disciplinary actions could be taken.
“I’m not afraid of disciplinary actions, but I know that’s how they coerce everyone else to take part,” he said. “They just want numbers to report, so they can justify their actions.”
Students who refuse to participate in the random testing will have to self-quarantine for two weeks and remain off campus. For on-campus residents who test positive or have been exposed to the virus, they will have the option to isolate in designated on-campus residence halls for COVID-19 patients.
The only listed disciplinary action in the email was the self-quarantine, which Ellen Frahm, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering, said she thinks is an appropriate action.
“Provided they maintain the random testing protocols, I do think it’s fair that people should quarantine if they don’t want to get tested so that way we can rule out if they have COVID-19 or not anyway,” Frahm said.
Although she feels the punishment is justified, Frahm said she is unsure that the random testing is necessary, but sees the benefit.
“I think the process for random testing itself is perhaps a little unnecessary because I think it’s more resourceful to allow students who have suspicion they may have been exposed to COVID-19 to volunteer for testing, but I think the university’s motivation for random testing is solid,” she said. “I think it’s good for making sure everyone is following precautions as best they can since following safety guidelines does help minimize COVID-19 exposure.”
Instead of performing the tests by using nasal swabs, Donna Petersen, senior associate vice president and USF Health dean, said Student Health Services (SHS) will be collecting saliva samples from those selected.
“It’s as simple as we’re just taking a saliva sample so there’s none of the nasal swabs, so that should be a relief to people,” Petersen said.
If selected, students will receive an email with instructions on how to schedule an appointment during the assigned week to take the test. All appointments can be made by calling SHS and test results will be back in one to two days, according to Petersen.
Instead of random students being selected, Frahm said a volunteer system may be more favorable to students.
“I do think voluntary testing would be better so that way people can feel like they still have a decision in their health on campus,” she said.
Petersen said USF is doing what it can to make students feel secure.
“We’re trying to respect people’s autonomy,” Petersen said. “There’s some concern that there may be a stigma associated with having been positive or having been exposed, and our overall job is to promote health and safety on the campus and we’re taking measures that allow us to do that.”
The number of students in self-isolation will not be disclosed.
“People are self-isolating if they’re positive, and they do that where they are more comfortable doing that, and we are not saying how many are on our campus,” she said.
Despite her uncertainty with the process, Frahm said she would not refuse the random test.
“If I were chosen for testing, I would follow through with it because even though I have been very careful with following safety guidelines, it’s not impossible that I could have contracted the virus and I would definitely want to make sure that I would not spread it more than necessary,” Frahm said.
For Blake Smallen, a junior majoring in mass communications, volunteer testing would likely be better than the random process USF is employing.
“I think it should be done on a volunteer basis just as all testing sites in the country currently are,” Smallen said. “Randomized testing will prevent some who actually need to be tested from receiving it.”
Even though he thinks the random process may not be the best way to go about testing, Smallen said he would not refuse the test if he was chosen and also feels the self-quarantine is a fair response to refusing the test.
“I think that requiring a quarantine to someone who refuses it is an appropriate trade-off,” he said.
SHS is also doing free COVID-19 tests for students, faculty and staff outside of random testing. To schedule an appointment, students will need to call SHS.
The university is also offering free COVID-19 at the USF Health-Therapy building on East Fletcher Avenue. The testing center operates Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. until noon and offers up to 300 RT-PCR tests a day, according to Petersen.
Though being randomly selected to be tested for COVID-19 may not be something that someone who has no symptoms wants to do, it could allow students who are asymptomatic or presymptomatic to be aware they are carrying the virus.
BestLife reported June 16 that only 20 percent of people between the ages of 10 and 18 will be symptomatic of COVID-19 if they contract it. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) said it is possible for asymptomatic patients of the virus to spread it.
“The majority of transmission that we know about is that people who have symptoms transmit the virus to other people through infectious droplets,” Van Kerkhovehe, WHO’s technical lead on the COVID-19 pandemic, said in a STAT news article on June 9. “But there are a subset of people who don’t develop symptoms, and to truly understand how many people don’t have symptoms, we don’t actually have that answer yet.”
Deanna Gonzalez-Headen, a junior majoring in communication sciences and disorders, said she applauds USF for the actions it is taking in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“I think people are forgetting, or at least dismissing, the fact that the coronavirus is still present, despite life slowly starting again,” Gonzalez-Headen said. “It hasn’t gone anywhere. Yes, we now know how to handle it a lot better, but at the end of the day everyone is still stressing about whether or not they have COVID-19. Randomized testing sort of rips the Band-Aid off since it’ll answer the black and white question, ‘Do I have COVID?’”
Describing the scenario as a “win-win” due to not having to pay for the test and being aware of infection, Gonzalez-Headen said she does not find anything unnecessary with the random testing process.
“Essentially, you’re getting free testing along with a definitive answer to whether or not you have contracted the virus,” she said. “I simply just don’t see an issue.”
With Labor Day falling Monday, Petersen said she fears cases may rise in the Tampa area.
“[Cases spiking] is a concern,” she said. “You saw what happened after the Memorial Day weekend. There was a huge surge in cases. However, for the Fourth of July, that didn’t happen, so that was good, but we really don’t know what will happen after the Labor Day holiday.”
With much uncertainty still, the random testing will provide answers to how many students are being exposed to, and infected with, the virus.
“Look how far we’ve come,” Gonzalez-Headen said. “Did you think that life would be this seminormal in April? Probably not, so let’s just be thankful and follow CDC guidelines.”