Ongoing testing program tracks UW COVID-19 spread

LARAMIE — University of Wyoming students and faculty may experience a new kind of pop quiz this fall semester. A random 3-percent sample of on-campus UW students and employees is being tested each week for COVID-19 as part of the university’s COVID-19 response. 

Real time data, including the results from the random testing, has been a central part of the university’s COVID-19 response, said Chad Baldwin, associate vice president for institutional communications and a member of the response team. 

The testing program, while not unique to UW, was one of the few in the country initiated last semester. It provides ongoing data on the spread of the disease, Baldwin said. 

All students and employees — close to 10,000 people — were tested at the beginning of the fall semester and a random sampling of 3 percent of that group has been tested once a week. The 3-percent sample was determined by the university’s ability to process the tests and the statistical relevance of the number, he said. 

Those selected are notified by email and are tested on campus. The tests are processed at the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory, a university service. The tests are free to students and employees. 

To date, the cost of the tests and lab work is about $4.3 million, Baldwin said. Of the initial 10,000 tested at the beginning of the semester, just over 1 percent tested positive, a total of 70 positives out of the group, he said. 

People who test positive are asked to follow state and county health department guidelines, including isolation. 

The cost of the initial and ongoing testing has been recouped through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act and other federal programs, Baldwin said. 

While testing has been available at other universities, the addition of the weekly random samples was driven largely by new university president Ed Seidel, Baldwin said.

“A big part of it was from our president, Ed Seidel, who just came to us from the University of Illinois a year and a half ago. They had developed a saliva test that we determined we could also do here, and we could do the processing of the test here,” he explained. 

“It gives the administration information to help make decisions. If we are having a gigantic spike or something it would perhaps cause us to take some measures,” Baldwin said. “Nobody’s pulling back from our in-person semester right now, but it is just good to know how pervasive the virus is in the community.” 

So far this semester the positivity rate has varied between a little over 1 percent to a little over 4 percent, he said. Most recently, the prevalence rate has been “way down,” Baldwin said, from 3.06 percent to 1.29 percent. 

Baldwin said the testing program is generally accepted by students and compliance has been strong. The testing is possibly less of a political hot button than vaccines, Baldwin said. 

“If you have COVID, you want to know it, right?” he said. 

“Last semester, students were being tested twice a week. It was pretty onerous and I’m sure there were students who were sick of it,” Baldwin said. “Now, with the 3 percent random sample, it’s not such a big burden. 

“The return testing this semester had 94-percent compliance, so we were really happy with that. I think most people on campus think we are going to do this testing, and we are going to wear masks, and we are going to get through this thing.” 

Baldwin said there is not an end date set for the random program. Whether or not it extends into the spring 2022 semester will depend on the spread of the disease in the community. He said current plans call for another test for everyone on campus in January.