COVID-19 response weekly update: COVID-19 Testing on the Rice Campus

COVID-19 response weekly update: COVID-19 Testing on the Rice Campus

Monday, July 27, 2020 11:23 am

Dear colleagues,

In my July 20th update I described some things you could see on the campus as part of the preparations for the fall semester. Today I write to give you some information about COVID-19 testing, which I’m asked about more than any other topic.

Our testing strategy and execution remains a work in progress and further updates are still to come. Testing is not a panacea. What comes before the testing (preventive measures) and what comes after a positive test (acting quickly to isolate, treat, contact trace, and quarantine) are more important measures. As I described in a prior update, a systematic approach is the best practice for creating an environment that will mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In other words, we’re implementing a layered defense of personal protective equipment, personal hygiene, modifications to buildings, testing and population health procedures (such as reducing density and contact tracing), all working in collaboration with each other.

It’s important to distinguish between the virus (SARS-CoV-2) and the disease caused by the virus (COVID-19, which is a respiratory illness). Some people will have no symptoms of respiratory illness, yet they will test positive for SARS-CoV-2. The FDA defines three main categories of tests for SARS-CoV-2.

  • Molecular tests (commonly known as PCR tests). These tests are the FDA gold-standard tests with the highest sensitivity (true positive rate) and specificity (true negative rate) for detecting an active coronavirus infection.
  • Antigen tests (commonly known as rapid tests). These tests have a slightly lower sensitivity and specificity than PCR tests, but deliver results within 30 minutes.
  • Antibody tests (which check for past infection of COVID-19). The CDC says these tests don’t determine whether people have been infected in the past or whether antibodies indicate they’re protected from infection in the future. That’s why the CDC doesn’t recommend these tests, and the FDA doesn’t authorize their use for diagnostic purposes.

We have contracted with Baylor Genetics (a commercial joint venture between the Baylor College of Medicine and Miraca) and Houston Methodist Hospital for molecular PCR tests. And for point-of-care molecular testing, we have contracted with CVS to test undergraduates when they first return to campus for the start of the fall semester.

Our testing contracts call for on-campus sample collection, processing of samples, and reporting the results within 48 hours. There will be no charge to employees or students for these on-campus tests. We have contracted for 60,000 tests that start today and run through the end of November.

Our advice for testing has come from experts in the following organizations:

  • Advisory Committee from the Texas Medical Center (Baylor College of Medicine, Houston Methodist Hospital, UT Health Science Center).
  • Advisory Committee of Rice Faculty (experts in epidemiology, microbiology, statistics, population health).
  • Faculty in charge of testing at universities with medical centers (Johns Hopkins University, University of Washington).

We are continuing to refine elements of our testing strategy. First priority will go to on-campus employees and students who are symptomatic, and well as those living on the Rice campus (we expect about 60% of the undergraduate beds to be filled). Then, to conduct the remainder of the tests, we will take a risk-based approach and assign individuals to cohorts based on the amount of contact they have with other people on campus and a limited number of other factors. If you don’t come to campus, Rice will not test you. If you have high contact with others while you’re on campus – for example, teaching a class or serving as a front desk staff member interacting with students all day – you will be tested more often. Because each person and organizational unit is in the process of determining who will be on campus and how often, the cohorts are not yet fully formed and the campus population is not yet defined in a comprehensive way. But we expect the campus population for the fall semester to be about half what it usually is on a normal day during the academic year. In the coming weeks, when we have a more precise understanding of who will be on campus, we will provide more information about cohorts and test administration.

For employees, if you’re tested off campus and you’re enrolled in Rice’s Aetna health insurance program, your COVID-19 testing is covered by the plan. A physician must order the test for you. You can also go to any of the testing sites throughout the Houston area, many of which offer free testing. You can find a list of testing sites on the Houston Emergency Operations COVID-19 website.

It’s also important to know that we have a rigorous case management protocol for people who are symptomatic or were exposed to the virus, and we’ve assembled a team of people to help with testing, isolation, treatment, contact tracing, and quarantine. As a result, we’ve been very successful in mitigating the transmission between people while they’re on campus, with only one possible case to date.

If a person tests positive for SARS-CoV-2, our team will use the CDC contact tracing protocol to identify anyone who had close contact with the confirmed case. That means they will try and trace anyone who came within 6 feet of the infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from 2 days before illness onset. People who do not meet this definition will not be notified of a confirmed case, even if they work in the same building.

Beginning in August we’ll launch a Rice-specific dashboard. We’ll post aggregated testing results and other population health statistics on this website every day to give everyone in our community a shared understanding of the campus environment.

Testing by itself is not enough. What matters is how we use that information to act quickly to isolate, treat, contact trace and quarantine those affected. We are looking for volunteers who may have some extra time in their normal workday to help out with part-time tasks on campus as part of our crisis management team. With your supervisor’s permission, we can use volunteer help with the following roles:

Testing is a complicated subject with many variables, some scientific uncertainty, and different approaches being used at peer universities. We’re still refining our risk-based approach and some of the logistics are still being worked out, including testing locations and scheduling. We’ll update you with more details in the coming weeks.

Kevin Kirby

Chair of the Crisis Management Advisory Committee

Vice President for Administration