As student newspapers across the nation push back on administrators and media accounts that are framing party-going students as responsible parties for university COVID-19 clusters and outbreaks, the University of New Mexico’s Student Health and Counseling (SHAC) is busy gearing up its diagnostic testing capacity.
UNM opened up a mobile testing site in UNM’s C Lot — located at the corner of Las Lomas Road and Redondo Drive – earlier this week. With the prospect of imminent outbreaks and clusters like those seen at universities across the country, UNM is putting plans in place to stem a potential tide of cases that could arise from continuing in-person classes.
According to UNM’s Bring Back the Pack: Targeted Testing website, “Individuals selected for testing will be identified in large part through the daily symptom screening or from self-reporting or through the Interventional Rapid Response Task Force (IRRTF) process.”
An email sent on behalf of Provost James Holloway to all main and branch faculty also advised faculty to have symptomatic students contact SHAC and to self-report using the “self-report system.”
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new testing guidelines that state that if someone does not have COVID-19 symptoms – even if they have been recently exposed – they do not need to be tested.
The New York Times recently reported that “experts questioned the revision, pointing to the importance of identifying infections in the brief window immediately before the onset of symptoms, when many individuals are thought to be most contagious.”
According to Dr. James Wilterding, the co-executive director of SHAC, UNM will test asymptomatic students who have recently been exposed despite the revised CDC guidelines.
“We are going to try to identify in a rational way (who to test) while also preserving the testing capacity in the state,” Wilterding said in a phone interview with the Daily Lobo.
Wilterding explained that New Mexico is unique in that the state is able to work with Tri-Core Laboratories in order to more quickly process testing. Tri-Core is a local lab that is owned partially by UNMH and Presbyterian, and Wilterding said that this means the lab is able to focus on the state’s needs as opposed to the national labs used more widely across the country.
“In many states in the country, they use national laboratories that are quite large and cannot be responsive to the environment,” Wilterding said.
Even with a local lab, however, “our state capacity is (still) about 8,000 tests a day, and we bump up against that many days a week,” Wilterding said.
This limitation, according to Wilterding, is in part due to the fact that New Mexico receives fewer testing reagents from national sources.
“There is a scarcity across the nation, and they tend to get sent to hot spots,” Wilterding said.
A reagent is a compound or mixture used to detect the presence or absence of another substance, according to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry Compendium of Chemical Terminology.
Wilterding said that the state will need to continue to prioritize testing for high risk people – like people in nursing homes – because he predicts that the reagents needed to complete the tests will remain in short supply through the end of the year.
“We are anticipating continued issues with restrictive supplies through December,” Wilterding said.
Despite the reagent scarcity, New Mexico still has one of the highest testing rates per capita in the country. And, UNM is still planning to test both students who have symptoms and asymptomatic students who have had a known exposure.
Students with symptoms will need to have their symptoms confirmed via a phone medical evaluation, and students who can provide evidence of a known exposure can also get a referral from a SHAC medical provider to get tested.
Additionally, if UNM knows someone on campus has tested positive, the SHAC Rapid Testing and Intervention team “is going to look at where that individual has been, and then they will get a jump on the contact tracing by having all those possibly exposed test immediately,” Wilterding said.
Contact tracers are trained individuals who identify those who have been in contact with someone who is confirmed COVID-19 positive.
“I think the best way to think about it is that the initial pass (conducted by the IRRTF) is casting a more narrow net for potential contacts who might test positive,” Wilterding said. “It’s not quite as nuanced as what the contact tracers will do, but it will be faster than they can get to it.”
Contact tracers will “conduct investigations of the index case – the person who tests positive – and then they identify, based on the criteria, everybody who is considered exposed,” Wilterding said. “And, then the contact tracers start trying to track down those individuals, and sometimes they also find other potential cases. So they are casting a very wide net, and it takes longer to do that.”
UNM is in the process of onboarding contact tracers, and Wilterding expects they should be able to begin working in about two weeks. The tracers will report to Occupational and Environmental Health Services (EOHS), which is located on north campus, and Dr. Denece Kesler, the director of EOHS, will serve as supervisor.
There are some discrepancies across the student body and at other universities regarding how frequently some are receiving tests.
UNM Athletics is proactively administering confirmation testing of all of their athletes, coaches and staff at least monthly, and the University of California, Los Angeles is testing every student living in university housing and every student who is participating in in-person classes.
Wilterding, however, asserted that testing these students at move-in or the start of the semester isn’t sufficient.
“If you are really going to use testing as your strategy to prevent transmission, you are going to need to test everybody on campus at least once a week, if not twice a week,” Wilterding said. “We don’t have the resources nor the testing capacity in New Mexico (to do this).”
On the upside – and unlike other schools across the country – UNM has made a concerted effort to ensure that no one will be personally billed for COVID-19 testing.
“Students who are tested will not get any charges for it,” Wilterding said. “We are going to try to bill insurance when we can, but our agreement with Tri-Core labs is that when they are unable to bill insurance they won’t send (the bill) to collections or bill the patient – they bill UNM.”
The UNM Health Protocol Committee and the Testing Committee have worked for months to come up with this strategy, according to Wilterding.
Wilterding said that he thinks the testing strategy is “workable and practical for our situation here and provides an acceptable level of risk for everybody.”
“The committee as we have set up the testing here is very sensitive that the testing has to be equitable for all students and all populations on this campus, and we are committed to making sure it plays out that way, “Wilterding said.
Lissa Knudsen is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lissaknudsen