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UMBC’s surveillance testing policies shows no new positive cases

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County marked the fourth week of its COVID-19 surveillance testing policies last week. With no new positive cases as of Oct. 13, the university continues to conduct approximately 100 tests of a random sample of residential students and a targeted sample of faculty, staff and students with in-person classes. UMBC Athletics also continues to conduct weekly testing of its men and women’s basketball teams and biweekly testing of 25 percent of every other athletic team’s roster.

UMBC’s decision to transition from population testing to surveillance testing stems from the university’s consistently low positivity rate, according to administrators, and the relatively low positivity rate in the surrounding Baltimore County area. Dr. Lucy Wilson, infectious disease specialist, professor and graduate program Director for UMBC’s Department of Emergency Health Services as well as an advisor on UMBC’s COVID-19 response team, explained that the use of Baltimore County’s positivity rate is a form of passive disease surveillance and tells the university how much testing it should do.

“It’s super important to help guide the aggressiveness of any additional testing,” said Wilson. “If I have almost no disease in the community versus you have really alarming rates or rising rates, that might change your own action if you are doing testing.”

Active surveillance of COVID-19 looks like UMBC’s testing the entire population when students, staff and faculty initially returned to campus Aug. 27 and after Labor Day. Somewhere in between active and passive surveillance strategies lies UMBC’s surveillance testing policies. Surveillance testing allows UMBC to identify clusters of cases through general symptom monitoring done through the university’s daily symptom tracker form. Anyone on-campus or coming to campus is required to fill out the symptom tracker. UMBC’s Public Health Dashboard shows that, as of Oct. 14, 1,670 people are filling out the tracker. 

With people tracking their symptoms, the university can do a targeted sampling in the event that, for example, there is a residential hall where a high number of students are reporting symptoms. This targeted sampling also occurs in populations UMBC deems at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, such as students with in-person classes or sanitation faculty.

UMBC Athletics conducts and processes its COVID-19 tests through the University of Maryland Medical System, excluding them in the university’s total weekly tests. Athletics’ testing strategy goes beyond the National Collegiate Athletic Association standards: policies like practicing in cohorts of less than 10 student athletes, the prevention of locker room use and the treatment of most sports as medium to high transmission risk despite their NCAA designation puts UMBC Athletics above the requirements.

Associate Athletic Director and Director of Sports Medicine Stacy Carone stated that as sports like swimming and diving and basketball begin competing in the coming months, student athletes will be tested three times a week with a mix of polymerase chain reaction tests and antigen testing. 

Vice President Dr. Nancy Young emphasized that no matter UMBC’s testing policies, there is no exact science to preventing COVID-19 outbreaks on campus through testing.

“It’s an art, not a science,” said Young. “This is an illness none of us have seen before, so there aren’t perfect answers.”