CORONAVIRUS

Iowa State University resumes COVID-19 campus testing in advance of spring semester

'It will likely be several months before the vaccine is widely available'

A sign marks the beginning of the COVID-19 testing line and check-in for students moving into campus housing at Lied Rec
A sign marks the beginning of the COVID-19 testing line and check-in for students moving into campus housing at Lied Recreation Center at Iowa State University in Ames on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Two weeks before the start of the spring semester, Iowa State University on Monday resumed on-campus COVID-19 testing and initiated a “risk-based sampling strategy” aimed at testing 5,000 students who either live in its residence halls or are members of a sorority or fraternity.

Details of that new testing requirement are being communicated directly to selected students. And, like in the fall, anyone new to the ISU Department of Residence system this spring “must provide proof of a COVID-19 test prior to receiving their keys and moving in.”

Iowa’s three public universities — which are welcoming students, faculty and staff back to campus Jan. 25 for another nontraditional semester reshaped by COVID-19 — are sharing more details not only about spring testing strategies but potential vaccination plans.

Iowa State, for example, said it received its first round of COVID-19 vaccine doses in late December and already administered that “small batch limited to campus workers providing health care and COVID-19 testing.”

“We ask for your patience as we await further information and direction about subsequent phases in vaccine distributions,” according to a Monday message from Thielen Student Health Center Director Erin Baldwin, Iowa State’s associate vice president for Student Health and Wellness, and Kristen Obbink, COVID-19 public health coordinator.

“Please understand it will likely be several months before the vaccine is widely available to the general public.”

In that health care workers are prioritized first for the two vaccines authorized for emergency use, the University of Iowa — which boasts the state’s largest hospital and health care system — as of Monday had given 8,035 employees one dose of vaccine and 750 workers both doses needed for 95 percent efficacy.

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In a campus communication, UI administrators Monday acknowledged questions among the thousands of students, faculty and staff planning their return to at least some degree of in-person learning and campus engagement.

“Johnson County Public Health has shared population data with the state to ensure that the county receives enough vaccine to cover University of Iowa students,” according to the message. “The timing of when the vaccine is made available for each population may impact where students choose to receive their vaccination, but the vaccine eventually will be available through Student Health.”

The UI message reiterates that vaccines are rolling out in phases based on federal and state public health guidance, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has placed at the top of the priority list health care workers and those living in long-term care facilities.

Frontline, essential workers come next, according to the guidance.

“The university will follow the state’s guidance for immunizing all health care and non-health care critical function employees. This may take several weeks or even months, so we ask for your patience,” according to the message that noted UI has four experts on a state Infectious Disease Advisory Council charged with helping distribute vaccine.

“Once IDAC submits its recommendations to the state and the director of IDPH adopts the recommendations, that information will be shared with campus,” according to UI.

In that the limited vaccines can’t serve as an immediate solution to campus COVID-19 concerns — and the virus continues its spread through the state, region and country — administrators across all three of Iowa’s public universities are urging continued vigilance in masking, distancing and hand-washing.

Although UI in the fall piloted asymptomatic testing among residence hall assistants and University of Northern Iowa hosted a Test Iowa site — letting anyone regardless of symptoms get a test — those campuses largely have limited testing to individuals with symptoms or confirmed contact with a positive case.

Iowa State also offers on-campus testing to symptomatic or close-contact cases — promising results within 24 to 48 hours — and resumed that testing Monday in Hilton Coliseum.

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But ISU plans to initiate asymptomatic surveillance in early February and continue through the semester “based on campus trends and needs.”

That campus reported 939 Ames community members recently participated in a “testing opportunity in partnership with Corteva,” including 577 people with ISU affiliation. Of those ISU participants, 19 tested positive — numbers included in the campus’ weekly COVID report that’s shown, although way down during the winter break, community members have continued contracting the virus.

Since the fall semester officially ended Nov. 25, more than 240 ISU students, faculty, and staff have tested positive for COVID, according to its database. That includes 39 in the last week that ended Sunday — for a positivity rate of 5.2 percent.

UI and UNI also have continued reporting cases on campus since their respective winter breaks began — with UI reporting more than 100 positive cases since Dec. 18. UNI has identified more than 35 positive cases via its Student Health Center post-Thanksgiving. All three campuses plan in the coming semester to continue saving space in their residence halls for students who test positive to isolate and students with close contact to quarantine.

At least three UI students are using its residence halls to quarantine.

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

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