Purdue will require and pay for all students returning to campus to be tested for the coronavirus before moving into residence halls and attending in-person classes, the University announced Wednesday.
“We want to make sure that costs or finances don’t come into play into whether you want to take care of yourself or find out you have an infection,” Chief Medical Officer at the Protect Purdue Health Center Dr. Esteban Ramirez said in an interview.
Faculty and staff will not be required to be tested upon arrival to campus, but if they develop symptoms Purdue will pay for their tests, Ramirez said.
“We thought, with the limited resources that are available,” he said, “it would be judicious for us to focus on our incoming students, who are coming from a variety of different locations and some higher risk states.”
Ramirez will lead the testing program, and said all students living on- and off-campus will need to be tested within two to three weeks of arrival. Negative results must be filed through the Protect Purdue Health Center before the first day of classes, Aug. 24, or students will be unable to participate.
“All the students should have a method for communicating to all their professors, ‘Yes, I’ve been cleared,’” Ramirez said. “The student will have a way to show that, and also we will have a method of communicating to our faculty if there’s been an exposure.”
As tests are only a snapshot in time and don’t indicate whether someone has been exposed to the virus in ensuing days, Ramirez said the University will only accept results from August onward. Negative tests registered even a day outside of the prescribed range of dates will be denied, and a retest will be required.
“It is important that students keep in mind timing,” he said. “We’re looking at trying to keep it within a three-week timeframe, preferably between Aug. 1 and Aug. 24.”
Purdue recommends students be tested in their home states before traveling, Ramirez said, regardless of the possibility they might be exposed in transit at airports or bus stops.
In the event of a positive test, the PPHC requires students to isolate for 14 days either in their home state or their off-campus residence, and it advises against traveling to West Lafayette for any reason while carrying the virus. If students test positive after arrival to a dorm, they can either isolate in place if it’s a single dorm or be moved into one of Purdue’s nearly 400 quarantine beds.
Purdue will pay for additional tests only if students arrive on campus and are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, Ramirez said.
Asymptomatic people can be tested through the Indiana State Department of Health, but that’s not the case in all states. The PPHC will coordinate with students who live in states where testing criteria are more strict on a case-by-case basis, Ramirez said, providing students an official justification for a local testing center.
Purdue is working with commercial providers like CVS or LabCorp to test all students, but nothing is solidified, the doctor said.
“If we can’t work through their particular situation,” he added, “we would just advise that they come early enough so they can be tested here.”
The nearly 650 students arriving on campus this week for Summer Start and Early Start programs will be tested, Ramirez said. About 100 had been tested Tuesday and Wednesday.
The PPHC’s two main testing sites are McCutcheon Parking Garage and a tent outside the Center for Healthy Living. Ramirez estimates a combined 1,000 tests a day can be administered through the sites. The sites have used saliva-based testing this week and will soon add nasal swabs, he added. The PPHC aims to return results within 48 hours.
Already, Ramirez has sights set on “serial testing,” which is periodic testing that allows health officials to actively monitor the number of tests in a given population. He favors group sampling, a process by which PPHC would test a subset of students and obtain a statistical sample of positivity rates, which would inform the number of additional tests necessary.
“That is on the horizon,” he said, “and we’re hoping that when fall semester starts we will be available to do that.”
The PPHC will be a “repository of information” related to the University’s tracking of the coronavirus, Ramirez said. In addition to filing students’ negative results, the PPHC will conduct contact tracing in coordination with ISDH and third-party contractor One to One Health.
Ramirez said the decision to require negative test results for on-campus students comes after weeks of meetings with ISDH and other universities, such as the University of Notre Dame. He noted that Clemson University and Vanderbilt University have implemented similar testing mandates.
As scientific evidence about the frequency of asymptomatic carriers — ISDH has reported likely two of five carriers are asymptomatic — has piled up, Ramirez said administrators decided negative tests should precede the arrival of more than 35,000 students to campus.
“If we’re trying to be as preemptive as possible,” he said, “knowing that there’s more people infected than seem to have signs and symptoms, it seems prudent to provide testing mechanisms to identify these individuals early to minimize the spread of infection.”