CORONAVIRUS

Eastern Iowa private colleges take proactive COVID-19 testing approach

Cornell College has no student cases with 'stratified sampling' antigen test strategy

A tree service works to remove limbs from the lawn on the Cornell College campus in Mount Vernon, Iowa on Thursday, Aug.
A tree service works to remove limbs from the lawn on the Cornell College campus in Mount Vernon, Iowa on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. Grounds crew members from the University of Dubuque took on maintenance tasks for the Cornell groundskeepers, who have been busy clearing away debris after the derecho that swept through the area on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

After hurricane-strength winds last month derailed semester start plans, Eastern Iowa’s private colleges finally are in session — with those in the Cedar Rapids area taking a proactive approach to COVID-19, which had been the main hurdle to a typical academic year before the derecho.

Mount Vernon’s Cornell College, which runs on a block system and resumed hybrid instruction Monday, is employing a “stratified sampling” COVID-19 testing system, enabling continuous testing of students, faculty and staff throughout the year using a “Sofia antigen test.”

The nasal swab test produces rapid results, allowing administrators to direct students to return to their residence hall room until receiving an email with results and follow-up instructions within an hour of taking the test.

Since Cornell began its testing program Aug. 31, it has tested 100 of its more than 1,000 students and employees and identified one positive employee and no positive students. That means none of Cornell’s 1,012 students are in isolation or quarantine.

Cedar Rapids’ Coe College, which began its hybrid fall semester Aug. 26, required all faculty, staff and about 1,400 students to get tested before classes started. No one was allowed to attend class or even enter a classroom “until a negative result is received.”

Coe’s most recent update Friday reported 36 active positive cases among students, plus 23 symptomatic students who had been exposed. All those individuals are in isolation or quarantine.

Also in Cedar Rapids, Mount Mercy University, which started classes this week, strongly recommended its nearly 1,700 students get tested before coming to campus for hybrid learning this fall — and to isolate or quarantine if necessary. So far, 14 students have tested positive and are in isolation. It has no positive employees to date.

Another 32 students and one employee are in quarantine for concerning close contacts.

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“When classes start, residential students who are symptomatic or who have identified as a close contact will have the opportunity to be tested on-campus,” Jamie Jones, director of Mount Mercy marketing and communications, wrote in an email last week. “Mount Mercy is assessing whether testing will be available for all students and employees based on volume and available test kits.

Public universities

Iowa’s public universities — all of which are taking a hybrid approach to this semester, bringing tens of thousands of students to campus, filling residence halls and prioritizing in-person learning — have reported much higher numbers after some students started the year partying and barhopping without masks or distancing.

The University of Iowa has reported 1,589 total COVID-19 cases since Aug. 18 — including 1,569 positive students and 20 employees. Iowa State University has reported 1,475 total cases since Aug. 1 — 33 employees and 1,442 students, including those the campus proactively tested during residence hall move-in.

And University of Northern Iowa is reporting 115 total cases since Aug. 17. That campus is not breaking down its numbers by students and employees.

Although Iowa State required its thousands of residence hall students get tested upon move-in, UI and UNI did not. The campuses instead are offering testing for symptomatic students, faculty, and staff or those who’ve had close contact with a positive case.

But none of the three public universities required widespread testing before coming to campus, like at Coe; recommended everyone get tested before arrival, like at Mount Mercy; or are conducting proactive asymptomatic testing campaigns, like at Cornell.

“There are significant benefits to this stratified sampling strategy,” according to Cornell statistics lecturer Brandi Shanata, who’s been working closely with college leadership on its testing strategy. “While we can’t quantify the effect, based on models and published data we have good reason to believe this will provide a substantial reduction in transmission.”

Cornell strategy

Here’s how Cornell’s stratified sampling works, according to Shanata.

The strategy has three layers: periodic testing, cluster sampling by residence hall floor, and random sampling of faculty and staff.

“Each of the three stages is designed to target a different avenue of spread and provide early warning of positive cases on campus,” Shanata said. “Depending on total campus population, the number of people tested on campus could range between 200 and 300 per block for the fall semester.”

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Cornell — which uses a one-course-at-a-time model running on a 10-block-a-year calendar — has 986 students enrolled in its first block, running from Sept. 7-30, and 875 students in its residence halls.

Only five of its courses are offered entirely in person, with 47 taking a hybrid modality and 15 online only. In that Cornell is small and largely residential, administrators could “use statistics and the results of modeling studies from summer 2020 implement a more efficient three-stage sampling strategy,” Shanata said.

Cornell’s Student Health Services conducts its randomized asymptomatic testing Monday and Thursday afternoons and updates its COVID dashboard Tuesday and Friday mornings with new numbers. Like the other campuses, Cornell tests symptomatic students and reports positive results — while also mitigating COVID-19’s spread via social distancing, face covering requirements, hand sanitizer stations, classroom spacing, improved ventilation, Plexiglass barriers, and other measures.

Coe approach

In addition to requiring all students, faculty, and staff test negative for COVID-19 before attending class in person, Coe’s Student Health Services will conduct random testing every month “to ensure containment of the virus.

“All community members must comply with the requirement to test in order to work or attend class on campus,” according to Coe’s testing guidance.

Coe also required athletes get a negative test before practicing and competing and expanded other health care services for students, faculty, and staff — making flu shots available, increasing over-the-counter medication offerings at its bookstore, and expanding mental health services.

In mid-August, Coe announced a testing partnership with UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids that aimed to test about 1,300 students and nearly 350 faculty and staff on campus by Aug. 21 — plus the ongoing random testing.

On Aug. 26, the college reported having received 1,603 test results to date — with a 1.5 percent positive rate, or about 24 cases.

“All affected community members are safely isolating and are healthy,” Coe reported at the time.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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