Universities are turning to saliva tests to track and mitigate COVID-19 exposures as students, faculty, and staff return to campuses

Saliva-based COVID-19 testing? There’s an app for that

Universities are turning to saliva tests to track and mitigate COVID-19 exposures as students, faculty, and staff return to campuses

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) has implemented a saliva PCR test for COVID-19 for the spring 2021 semester as part of a program to safely return to on-campus learning.

All students, faculty and staff who need to be physically on campus are required to have three tests, spaced 10 days apart. Testing began on January 19. The tests are being processed at the university’s Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Center.

As of mid-February, almost everyone has completed at least two if not all three rounds of tests, according to Nate Morris, services lead, ITS, for the university. Morris said that university leadership will be looking at the test results and will be determining if more testing will be required, whether randomized or for everyone or for certain populations, and on what frequency. Those who would like to still be tested can do so.

The testing is free for students, faculty, and staff.

Although the university did not require testing for COVID-19 for the fall 2020 semester, it has instituted mandatory testing for spring 2021 based on guidance from the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. The university said that the testing is an extra layer in its broader approach—including wearing face coverings, observing social distancing guidelines and frequent hand washing— to limit spread of the virus both on campus and in the broader Lincoln community.

Test scheduling and results are being delivered to each person via the Safer Community app for iOS and Android (developed by ROKMETRO). Students, faculty, and staff with active university IDs can use the Safer Community app to access information about their testing schedule and results, including personalized on-campus testing reminders, personalized and private on-campus testing results, and information on on-campus testing site locations and hours.

In addition to test scheduling and results, the Safer Community app also provides access to additional features for the health and safety for faculty, staff and students including a COVID-19 symptom-scale for automated self-assessment, personalized guidance and next steps for responding to an exposure or positive test results, the most recent guidelines from the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, and contact information for virtual-care teams from local healthcare providers.

Individuals who do not have a smartphone can schedule their test, view their results, and print building access passes from the university’s COVID-19 testing online portal.

If a saliva test result is positive, the individual will be contacted by UNL’s Public Health Advocacy Team. The Public Health Advocacy Team will provide support and resources to navigate school and work and also to conduct contact tracing for the UNL community. The identity and health information of anyone testing positive will be kept confidential, and information will be shared only as needed with Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department to coordinate contact tracing and to notify identified close contacts of exposure. UNL will provide isolation housing at no additional cost to students who need it.

The Safer Community app also supports daily building access and notifications. Morris said that the app has a building pass function that displays each person’s status that indicates whether they’re allowed in campus buildings. Individuals must have had a negative test within the past 10 days or have completed all three rounds of tests to be granted building access.

“We’re staffing random building entrances each day with building entry monitors who check people’s building pass on the app as they enter,” Morris explained. “We’ve also set up two print kiosks for those to print off a daily building pass if they don’t have a smartphone or are having issues with the app.”

As of mid-February, the university is preparing to launch a required, random mitigation testing program after the third round of reentry testing and if the campus’ COVID-19 positivity rate remains low. This testing strategy will randomly select members of the campus community to participate, providing an updated look at transmission and asymptomatic cases among students, faculty, and staff. Individuals must participate in the random mitigation testing in order to maintain access to campus buildings.

Morris said that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s policies were adapted from the University of Illinois, which started a similar program last fall. Other institutions using the Safer Community app to facilitate and ensure the safety of their return to on-campus learning include Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN; and the University of Maine system.

eSchool Media Contributors