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Letter to the editor: Response to “Zero COVID-19 cases? More like zero transparency.”

We know this is a concerning time and that many in our community want to understand the measures we are taking to keep our students, faculty, and staff as safe and healthy as possible. We wish to respond to a recent editorial in The Retriever that expressed concerns with the current campus COVID-19 testing policy.

UMBC’s testing strategy was designed with the advice of epidemiology and infectious disease experts at UMBC and the University of Maryland School of Medicine. COVID-19 response and mitigation is complicated and relies on constantly changing prevailing public health guidance. In addition, each university campus is unique and requires a different strategy. Our planning team has endeavored to create a strategy that is relevant, responsive, and flexible. The editorial incorrectly states that the university’s testing strategy recently changed as a result of low positivity rates. The testing plan has remained the same since we shared it with the campus in July and included an initial round of comprehensive tests with a transition to active surveillance testing.

We respectfully disagree with the editorial’s suggestion that universal testing alone is the optimal prevention strategy. Rather, it is important to remember that testing is only one component of the recommended interventions to decrease infection rates. In accordance with public health best practices, we are also using daily symptom tracking and online reporting of cases and contacts to monitor the health of our students, faculty, and staff who are approved to be on campus. Anyone who reports COVID-related symptoms receives instructions to limit their contact with others and to seek further evaluation. A “Contact Response Team” meets routinely to review all cases and make sure those reporting positive test results receive appropriate follow-up. This work includes providing a range of assistance to students living on and off campus who may have been exposed.

UMBC’s multi-pronged approach also includes: substantial “de-densification” of on-campus housing and activities, 90 percent of coursework being predominantly online, staff largely working remotely, mandatory face coverings on campus, enhanced cleaning and hand hygiene capabilities, classroom distancing adjustments, frequent communications, accommodations for vulnerable individuals, and collaboration with local public health authorities and the University System of Maryland. It is important to be aware that all aspects of COVID-19 response have limitations, but with these efforts, the risk of transmission can be significantly reduced.

It is this combination of efforts — not testing alone — that we believe has contributed to our low number of positives and the general health of our community. We are also open to evaluating and adjusting our strategy in the future as testing technology and our knowledge of this virus evolves.

While the needs of each university and campus vary, public health guidance supports our current testing strategy of weekly active surveillance, alternating between random samples — determined using an epidemiological algorithm — and testing of groups with higher risk of exposure, such as maintenance staff and students enrolled in face-to-face arts and performance classes.

In addition to on-campus testing, UMBC also receives and responds to self-reported testing results through our Case Report Form. Should any of these measures identify hotspots or outbreaks in a particular population, the team is ready to deploy testing within a larger group in order to identify asymptomatic individuals and de-escalate the situation.

We appreciate and share the editorial board’s concern for community members. A testing sub-committee meets weekly to review the testing strategy, analyze results, improve the testing process, and identify any populations that may need targeted testing. The COVID-19 Planning Coordinating Committee has endeavored to be as transparent as possible in its process. We actively respond to inquiries for clarification or more information through the COVID-19 inbox and welcome any community members to reach out if they have questions.

By: The COVID-19 Planning Coordinating Committee