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UA platform tells students to self-assess

FAYETTEVILLE — Reminders to complete health self-assessments will be seen by University of Arkansas, Fayetteville students whenever logging into the online platform that delivers course information, a UA spokesman said.

Daily checks are among the strategies used by universities to try to avoid covid-19 outbreaks on campuses, with some large public universities — including the University of Tennessee — making them mandatory for students through online forms or apps.

Such checks can lead students to stay home, university leaders say. In general, UA students who experience symptoms are asked to contact their health care providers or the campus health center, where covid-19 testing is available.

The amount of testing at UA thus far has not been disclosed by the university, but a Yale researcher who’s modeled scenarios for colleges reopening said frequent testing of college students — regardless of whether they’re showing symptoms — should be a top priority if campuses want to remain open.

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“The people with asymptomatic and presymptomatic infections are fueling this epidemic,” said David Paltiel, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health.

A few high-profile universities, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, cited covid-19 case counts this week in abruptly shifting away from plans for in-person instruction.

SELF-ASSESSMENTS

As at other college campuses, the UA health self-assessment “is meant to remind students about COVID-19 symptoms to be on the lookout for and what steps to take if they are experiencing any symptoms,” UA spokesman Mark Rushing said in an email.

The university opted not to require a daily certification for students, as it does for employees who work on campus.

UA faculty and staff members working on campus are to use an app known as Workday and fill out what the university is calling a Daily COVID-19 Certification.

Workers are asked to certify that they have not experienced within the past 14 days “any new symptoms of coughing, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, sore throat, diarrhea, [throwing up], headache, nausea, fever, chills, or muscle aches,” according to a UA announcement dated July 28.

Before going to campus, workers taking the Daily COVID-19 Certification also must confirm that within the past 14 days they have not lost their sense of taste or smell, and that they have not been in close contact with someone who has covid-19.

Rushing said the university is encouraging health self-assessments for students but will not be considering the health-checks “certifications.” This is a change from earlier plans published on the UA website, when the university stated that a “certification process for students is being developed.”

“We utilized an employee app for employees, but the university does not currently have an equivalent type of app for students,” Rushing said. “A new app is being launched this fall and will include reminders about the student self-assessment.”

The University of Tennessee has a “daily health self-screening form” accessed either online or through an app, and is requiring daily temperature checks of students and workers, according to the university’s website.

Mississippi State University is requiring on-campus residents to use an emergency notification app called Everbridge that is set to remind students each morning to complete a “Wellness Check,” according to the university’s website.

Among large universities in Arkansas, students and employees at Arkansas State University logging into the school’s campus information portal are prompted to answer symptom questions.

“Not only is this a screening process, it is also a reminder of the COVID-19 symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, nausea, a new change in taste or smell),” ASU Chancellor Kelly Damphousse said in a Monday message to the campus.

Rushing said Tuesday that UA will this week use its communication platforms to provide information to students about the self-assessments.

This is in addition to reminders in the online course management system known as Blackboard, which students use to access course materials. The first day of classes at UA is Monday. More than 4,000 students were living on campus as of Tuesday, a spokesman has said.

ABOUT TESTING

Rushing said UA’s Pat Walker Health Center is providing covid-19 testing “as appropriate.”

Testing on the UA campus is available for any students, faculty and staff members experiencing symptoms of covid-19 or who have been in contact with someone diagnosed with covid-19.

For others, Rushing said on-campus testing depends on availability.

“Asymptomatic testing will be conducted as supplies, test kits and capacity allow. Appointments are required for testing,” Rushing said.

The university plans to publish covid-19 case and testing data ahead of the first day of classes, Rushing has said.

Several large universities have also, so far, not released testing data. Universities have taken different approaches to providing covid-19 testing for students, and some have stated plans that differ considerably when it comes to testing broadly for covid-19.

Louisiana State University, in its return to campus plan, states that it will “be testing some members of our LSU family on a voluntary basis this fall to better understand the virus’ presence in our community.” LSU lists the number of covid-19 cases on its website, but not the number of tests done.

Elsewhere, the University of Wisconsin-Madison on its website states that “anyone can get tested” at campus testing sites and that students in university housing “are required to be tested regularly.”

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a requirement that students active in on-campus activities must be tested twice per week. The campus is using a saliva-based test rather than the more common nasal swab test.

Paltiel, the Yale researcher, led a group of investigators who created a mathematical model with scenarios for campuses reopening.

“We have performed thousands and thousands of simulations,” Paltiel said.

None of the group’s simulations found a campus avoiding an outbreak by “sitting around waiting for students to show signs and symptoms and then springing into action,” Paltiel said.

The group’s model was based on 5,000 students, including 10 with covid-19.

The group wrote in its paper that “frequent screening (every 2 days) of all students” might be required “to control outbreaks with manageable isolation dormitory utilization at a justifiable cost.”

The research paper, “Assessment of SARS-CoV-2 Screening Strategies to Permit the Safe Reopening of College Campuses in the United States,” was published in July in the JAMA Open Network, which is published by the American Medical Association.

The paper acknowledged that campuses have concerns such as cost. Such frequent testing also leads to false positive tests that would “threaten to overwhelm isolation housing capacity,” the authors noted.

TURNAROUND TIME

Another factor that poses a challenge, the authors noted, is the turnaround time for test results.

For tests taken by students at UA’s Pat Walker Health Center, “results take generally 36-48 hours to receive,” according to the university’s website.

Zac Brown, a UA spokesman, said the center is partnering with Natural State Laboratories to process results. The private lab operates in North Little Rock.

“Tests are administered by health center staff and sent daily for results,” Brown said. He added that UA leaders “consistently explore any and all possibilities to ensure the U of A community has access to quick and reliable testing.”

Back in July, University of Arkansas System President Donald Bobbitt told state legislators at a meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Council-Higher Education Subcommittee that the “hope” was to have student test results available within 24 hours.

Danyelle McNeill, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health, said tests of college students, faculty and staff members are given a high priority in state public health lab processing, which she said on average has a turnaround time of 48-72 hours.

For college students, “many will be living in congregate settings and classrooms involve congregate situations, so it is important to prioritize testing for students,” McNeill said in an email. College student covid-19 tests are given the same priority as that of kindergarten-through-12th-grade students, McNeill said, but turnaround times cannot be guaranteed.

Back in July, Bobbitt referred to a purchase of covid-19 testing equipment by the state Department of Health that he said would “hopefully” be “devoted to the needs of higher education.”

McNeill said Wednesday that the state bought a machine from scientific and medical instrument company PerkinsElmer to be used for tests from all colleges and universities in the state.

“It is currently being validated and will be up and running in a few days. The machine can handle 1,000 tests a day,” McNeill said.

She said the department is “hopeful that it can reduce turn-around times” for test results but that there is no way to say for sure how long test results will take. The equipment is being set up for use in Little Rock at the department’s main laboratory, she said.


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