It has been known for months: colleges reopening without adequate COVID-19 testing are doomed to failure. As such, colleges have spent millions of dollars on COVID-19 tests to ensure they would be able to respond with alacrity to an outbreak. St. Olaf, while bolstered by an effective early-semester testing scheme, is not doing enough to track the possibility of an outbreak on campus.
A sizable COVID-19 outbreak on campus going undetected for even a short period runs the risk of quickly bursting above manageable size. Even worse, the virus only needs to reach one vulnerable person for potentially disastrous consequences. It stands to reason that catching cases in the early stages is necessary for the protection of the St. Olaf community.
According to data collected by the World Health Organization, around 80 percent of overall COVID-19 cases and nearly all cases among non-vulnerable people are asymptomatic. Since the vast majority of cases among members of the student body would be asymptomatic, it is obvious that we must rely on surveillance testing and contact tracing in order to ascertain whether or not there is an outbreak.
The full extent of St. Olaf’s plan is to test 300 people a week at random. Once someone tests positive, contact tracers determine who they believe is at risk due to contact with the infected person and instruct them to quarantine in their room until they pass the incubation period of the virus and have no risk of infecting others. It is incredibly important to note that contract-traced individuals do not get tested. This is where the plan falls apart.
Like all viruses, COVID-19 emerges in clusters of people. Think of an outbreak as a series of layers: the first layer being the original infection, the second layer being people who got it from them, the third layer being people who got it from the second layer, etc. This spread emerges in traceable patterns, essentially creating a growing social zone of infection which acts, with enough data, predictably. Since each layer gets exponentially larger than the last one, it is imperative to catch the outbreak early. The current system, however, only deals with the first two layers.
If someone tests positive and the people at risk from them are quarantined, contact tracing does not continue onto that third layer — it figures that the second cohort has not infected anyone, which is an unsafe assumption to make. Considering the small portion of the student population that is tested each week, cases which come back positive have likely sat undetected for weeks. This means an infection is very likely to have reached the third layer and continues to spread totally unbeknownst to the College.
This is perhaps the most solvable testing issue imaginable. If the policy allocated tests to the second layer and treated them as new infections (further testing the people they exposed, so on and so forth until no new positive cases emerge,) then the college would have a near-foolproof ability to discover these clusters of cases.
The current policy assures that the College will never take the necessary measures to stop a deadly outbreak. The College needs 45 positive cases for two weeks in a row to reach the 3% threshold necessary to even temporarily place classes online. The changes in regulation between the 0-1 percent and 1-3 percent range are so small as to be basically discounted. This doesn’t seem too bad, until you consider the tests are only including the people who are randomly chosen and not those who have been exposed, which means that 90 out of 600 random tests would need to return positive over a two week period. This would imply a disastrous 15 percent positivity rate, which would mean over 450 members of the St. Olaf community would already have the virus.
This far eclipses the college’s ability to test and quarantine, and the chance of the virus being spread to a vulnerable population would be incredibly high. In this scenario, the college’s only recourse is to cross their fingers and hope for no deaths. I’d prefer we not reach that point.
I am asking for one exceedingly simple thing in order to protect students, staff and faculty: test the people exposed to COVID-19.
Logan Graham ’22 is from Warrenville, I.L. His major is