Ask An Expert: Inside A Comprehensive Coronavirus Testing and Tracing Program

Excerpts and edited notes for this blog were referenced from an “Ask An Expert” KCBS radio station 740 FM segment on October 8th, 2020 at 9:20 AM hosted by Stan Bunger. The following information was prepared by Jessica Yi. This blog is presented for viewers to validate, accept and/or decline its content and findings on their own.

Frequent Coronavirus Testing Allows University to Continue Student Education Activities Safely

Ask An Expert

As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio spoke with Dr. Marty Burke, professor for chemical innovation and chemistry at the university and associate dean at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

Like many of their colleagues, officials and experts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign spent the summer coming up with a plan to address the coronavirus pandemic on their campus.

What they came up with was one of the most comprehensive programs in the nation.

“It’s the complete ecosystem that’s really the key,” explained Dr. Marty Burke.

“The science available at the time suggested that testing was going to be really important but not a silver bullet,” he explained. “And I think that’s really the key thing that we’ve learned to be true, that testing has to be combined with really frontier data science to figure out who to test, how often to repeat it and how to communicate those results in a way that’s as effective as possible. Also we put that together with masks and social distancing.”

When epidemiologists told university officials that students would need to be tested twice a week, they knew that would not be possible with the commonly used nasopharyngeal swabs. So researchers at the university figured out a way to use saliva samples to run faster PCR tests.

“As of yesterday we’ve now run half a million of these saliva tests,” since July said Dr. Burke. There are about 50,000 people being tested on a regular basis.

The university’s seven-day positivity rate is at just 0.28%.

Dr. Burke says testing everyone this frequently means they can catch new cases early in the course.

“What we see happen is oftentimes an individual will be negative many, many times in a row – let’s say seven or eight negative tests – and then all of a sudden we’ll see a positive at a very low level of detection. And what that means is we’ve caught that person on the way up, so before their viral load came into the infectious range.”

That means people can go into isolation before they even become infectious.

Another key component in their plan is an app that monitors everyone’s status and only grants access to campus if you are up to date on your tests, tested negative and have not had a recent exposure. Students and staff can also opt-in to sharing their location data and be notified if someone they were in contact with has a positive test result.

Dr. Burke says restaurants and bars near campus have started using the app as well.

If someone does need to isolate, the university offers support in terms of essential supplies, access to any medical care they may need and mental health services and support groups.

Dr. Burke says dozens of other universities and large companies have reached out for help creating their own programs. Anyone who is interested can contact Bill Jackson, interim executive Discovery Partners Institute director at [email protected]