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Penn State Outlines Fall Semester Coronavirus Testing Procedures, Plans

Penn State laid the groundwork for its on-campus coronavirus testing plans during a town hall Thursday afternoon.

The town hall, hosted by President Eric Barron, featured the expertise of the College of Medicine’s Dr. Kevin Black, who outlined several steps the university will take to test for the coronavirus both before and after students return to campus in August.

First, Penn State will implement a mandatory pre-arrival testing program. Black said the university will send tests through the mail to approximately 30,000 Penn Staters shortly before returning to campus. They’ll be sent with shipping information and later sent to laboratories to be processed. Individuals who test positive won’t be able to return to campus until they’re cleared by a health care provider.

Black said these pre-arrival tests will be prioritized for individuals living in “high-risk” areas around the country where the coronavirus is more prevalent. He added individuals will be expected to self-quarantine during the week leading up to their return to campus.

“Focusing on individuals returning from high disease prevalence provides us the opportunity to begin the semester with a far lower number of asymptomatic but COVID-positive individuals on campus, which is essential to allowing the campuses to remain open throughout the semester,” Black said.

Additionally, Penn State will randomly test approximately 1% of students, faculty, and staff (~700 people) each day at designated locations around campus. Those locations have yet to be revealed.

Black reiterated Penn State will have the capacity to test symptomatic students as soon as possible with “rapid turnaround times.” The university said it is finalizing plans with a well-known, national laboratory to achieve that goal.

“I also want to emphasize that this is a dynamic process, and as our understanding of the science and technology continues to evolve, we will be prepared to pivot our strategy to best care for our faculty, staff, and students,” Black said.

Black said Penn State’s coronavirus testing strategies focused on minimizing the virus’ presence on campus and within the community and preventing an increase in cases so Penn State and local health systems don’t exceed their abilities to quarantine, isolate, or treat those affected.

By his estimation, Black said Mount Nittany Medical Center, a local hospital, would only be able to admit one coronavirus patient each day without overloading its capacity.

Furthermore, Penn State will employ a “robust” contact-tracing system to test and monitor asymptomatic individuals who come into contact with those who’ve tested positive and now are at risk. The system will be a scaled-up version of previous models used to monitor other health concerns, such as mumps and measles, on campus.

According to the university, when someone is identified as being positive, they’ll be contacted by a nurse or doctor and asked to provide information on who they’ve been in close contact with within the last few days. Identified individuals will be required to quarantine for 14 days since their contact with the individual who tested positive.

Damon Sims, Penn State’s vice president for student affairs, reiterated students will receive “extensive support” while they’re isolated. They’ll receive physical and mental health checks, be provided support from their professors, and access to food and laundry services while stuck in quarantine.

Penn State plans to quarantine and isolate students using approximately 400 single-occupancy rooms in three Eastview Terrace buildings.

During the town hall, administrators agreed students will need to do their part to help the fall semester run as smoothly as possible.

“We can’t do this alone,” Barron says. “We really need you to focus on personal responsibility and to be our partner. It’s the only way that Back To State can be successful.”

Penn State said it will provide more official and “concrete” information through news releases in the coming days.

Miss out on all the information in today’s town hall? Catch up by reading through Onward State’s live blog of the hour-long event.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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