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Photo of UMBC’s University Health Services (UHS), taken from The Retriever’s archives.

No excuses, UMBC: We need free and continuous on-campus testing

In response to COVID-19, over the past year, many colleges have struggled to adapt to the health needs of their communities. This fall, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s health and safety efforts got off to a good start via their University Health Services with one key exception: the lack of truly free and accessible on-site testing.

UMBC’s fall 2020 semester began with its on-campus residential population reduced to “roughly 2,200 beds,” an attempt by the university’s leadership to both mitigate the risk of spreading the virus and provide essential housing. It also mandated coronavirus testing two weeks prior to residential students arriving on campus, which was followed by free testing provided on campus for all of these same students during move in.

Along with frequent, if sometimes vague updates and emails, the university enforced stringent sanitation practices, implemented social distancing guidelines and mandated face coverings/masks, as well as other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended practices. 

In contrast to their adaptation to the CDC’s changing guidelines, the UMBC administration has stated that while their “response and mitigation is complicated and relies on constantly changing prevailing public health guidance,” concerningly, their “testing plan has remained the same since [they] shared it with the campus in July.” While this was framed as a positive, the fact that the testing plan hasn’t changed means that the administration hasn’t been willing or able to adapt to such a rapidly developing situation.

Even at around eight months since the coronavirus pandemic officially began, the conditions are still proving to be unpredictable as the United States experiences a heartbreaking record high of cases, with more than 100,000 new cases each day at the time of writing.

In light of this, UMBC’s stagnant testing plan is even more concerning.

As outlined in a recent “Retriever” staff editorial, with another campus-wide testing period approaching for the end of the semester, free testing is still not accessible to everyone who wants or needs it. On their website, UMBC states that “[they] are not able to have community members ‘walk-in’ for on-campus testing.” 

In response to “The Retriever’s” article, UMBC administration stated that “it is important to remember that testing is only one component of the recommended interventions to decrease infection rates.”

While the university’s actions of “daily symptom tracking and online reporting of cases and contacts,” “substantial ‘de-densification’ of on-campus housing and activities,” “mandatory face coverings on campus” and “collaboration with local public health authorities and the University System of Maryland” are all critically important, the staff editorial was not positing “that universal testing alone is the optimal prevention strategy.” 

Rather, the piece was stating that regardless of the other measures being taken, the health of students cannot be guaranteed without universal testing.

But what about free testing available throughout the state, you say? Honestly, it’s incredibly ridiculous to expect students at a public institution, where about 82% of new students receive some form of financial aid, to be able to afford safe transportation to testing sites. And no, public transportation doesn’t necessarily count as safe during a pandemic.

With the decent accessibility of services like telehealth and student health insurance provided through UHS, the provision of universal on-site testing should reasonably follow.

As the United States experiences a horrifying record high in new coronavirus cases, it is now more important than ever to provide continuous, free and accessible testing to ensure everyone’s health and safety. So, while UHS has performed admirably well under pressure, that doesn’t mean that they can drop the ball now, when they’re needed most.