By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
A platform designed to test all Alabama college students for COVID-19 before they return to campus this fall now has 13 testing sites throughout the state and has a turnaround time for results of 24-48 hours.
State health officials said Monday that once all college campus students are tested, this kind of high-capacity, rapid testing could be used for the general public as early as the end of August.
“It’s a very sensitive test, very reproducible and quite reliable,” Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said during a press conference on Monday.
“What we are doing right now is how to pivot in the next two to three weeks, much sooner than we had originally planned, so we can provide the service to the state, which is looking for more help in terms of capacity.”
The 13 sites will test the more than 200,000 Alabama college students before they return to campus as part of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, University of Alabama System and Alabama Department of Public Health joint effort to reopen campuses safely.
Along with the expansive testing, students will also be using the GuideSafe multitool platform that includes a health check COVID-19 symptoms app, an exposure notification app and an event passport app.
All students are required to test negative before returning to campus and must download and use the app that allows students to record their symptoms on a daily basis. Students can voluntarily use an anonymous exposure notification app that will automatically notify them if they have been near a fellow user who has tested positive.
Each student’s respective college or university will reach out via email with guidelines of how and when to set up their onsite testing time. Out-of-state students will be mailed personal testing kits that they are asked to send back immediately to be tested.
The expansive testing effort and GuideSafe platform are being funded through about $30 million from the state’s CARES Act allocation.
The new form of test, which has been designed by the UAB’s pathology department, is a self-administered test that is non-evasive but still highly sensitive and effective, according to state health officials.
The ADPH said last week that wait times for COVID-19 test results were averaging about seven days due to a surge in cases. State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said he hopes to take the lessons learned with this testing rolling out and use it towards rapid testing of all Alabamians.
“That’s what makes this particular program helpful,” Harris said Monday. “Not only will we get baseline testing information for re-entry on these students, but we also have the ability to have a more robust testing network, platforms that are ramped up and available to use to use for other opportunities as well.”
During the school year, sentinel testing will take place so as to monitor the spread on campuses.
Dr. Selwyn Vickers, dean of the UAB School of Medicine, said Monday that will mean testing around 15,000-20,000 students every week across all of Alabama’s colleges.
Finis St. John, chancellor of the University of Alabama System, said he was confident in this expansive testing effort and new platform’s ability to control the spread of COVID-19 on campuses, but it doesn’t mean that students, staff or faculty should stop taking the necessary health precautions like wearing a mask and social distancing.
“We will be asking more of students, staff and faculty this semester than we ever have,” St. John said on Monday. “It will be different, but hopefully it won’t be different for very long.”