For weeks, Tulane University has been in the midst of a massive testing initiative — screening every student, staff and faculty member for COVID-19 before allowing them to return to campus for the start of classes on Aug. 19.
On the last day of testing, Tulane had recorded 82 positive cases, according to an email sent to community members. The university administered more than 12,000 tests over 23 days and found 47 positive cases, representing a positivity rate of .39 percent. The remaining 35 cases were confirmed by outside healthcare providers.
Health officials have recommended that communities maintain a percent positivity rate of 5 percent before loosening coronavirus restrictions. New Orleans’ average positivity rate has hovered around 2 percent for the last week.
Of the 82 cases, 13 are no longer active and 69 are currently in quarantine, according to the email. Tulane said those who had close contact with the positive cases are also in isolation, though an exact number was not given.
Tulane is the only New Orleans area college or university to conduct its own widespread testing, and did so through its Molecular Pathology Laboratory at the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine of Tulane University School of Medicine.
Several other universities and colleges — like Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana — have required that students get tested, and have provided on and off-campus resources to help them do so.
Mandatory return testing is an uncommon approach largely because of the considerable resources it requires. The University of New Orleans and the Louisiana State University system are relying on students, faculty and staff to self-report if they test positive for COVID-19, experience symptoms, or believe they’ve been exposed to the virus.
The CDC does not recommend widespread return testing because the approach has not been systematically studied and may not be an effective tool for mitigating community spread since it is limited to a specific moment in time. They do suggest that some schools test some or all asymptomatic members periodically to “identify outbreaks and inform control measures.”
Tulane plans to continue its testing efforts by testing all undergraduate students weekly and all graduate students, faculty and staff at least monthly. Testing data will be reported weekly on Tulane’s website.
“The purpose of Tulane's comprehensive and ongoing testing program is to swiftly identify and isolate all positive individuals — including those who are asymptomatic — in order to contain the potential spread of the COVID-19 virus,” Tulane said in the email.
Students who test positive are required to isolate off-campus or at Paterson House, a residence hall turned quarantine facility. The university also has additional isolation rooms available at a downtown hotel. Between the two spaces they can accomodate 310 students at any given time.
Tulane said 92 percent of quarantine spaces were still available, as of Aug. 19, meaning about 25 students are currently using their facilities to isolate.
On Friday, Dean of Students Erica Woodley wrote to students to remind them that “non-compliance with quarantine and isolation will have serious consequences, including suspension.”
Woodley reminded students of the university’s health safety requirements — such as wearing a mask and not gathering in large groups — and said she had already received reports of student violations.
“I have been inundated with reports of students, often walking in groups, not wearing masks,” Woodley wrote. “Wearing a mask is one of the easiest and most important ways to prevent the spread of this disease.”
Woodley also wrote that students have already been suspended for hosting gatherings of over 15 people.
“We know that some of you think we are doing too much and being too harsh, while others think we aren’t doing enough,” Woodley wrote. “What I want you to know is that we are working very hard to find the balance so that we can continue to deliver an in-person education at Tulane.”
According to a survey conducted by the Tulane University Chapter of the American Association of Professors, the majority of faculty were uncomfortable with the university’s reopening plan. Fifty-eight percent said the university should limit the number of returning students, while 36 percent said students shouldn’t return for the fall semester at all.