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Column: COVID-19 testing is essential for UNC to reopen safely

Rajee headshot

Opinion writer Rajee Ganesan poses for a portrait. Photo courtesy of Rajee Ganesan.

In theory, starting the semester early to keep students from leaving campus for extended breaks may have been a good idea. However, the fact that decision-making regarding COVID-19 protocols has been rushed in the last several weeks to prepare for reopening is extremely detrimental to the well-being of students, staff and faculty at UNC.

One of the more questionable decisions made by the UNC administration in recent weeks was the choice to not require COVID-19 testing for students upon return to campus under the premise that it "could create a false sense of security." Testing for COVID-19 is crucial to identify infected individuals who may not present symptoms. With this knowledge, students would be able to self-isolate and prevent the spread of the virus to others. Testing protocols have been implemented in virtually every other institution across the U.S., from the NBA to the White House.

The University of Virginia and Duke University, among others, are requiring mandatory COVID-19 testing for students before they are allowed to return to campus this fall. Other institutions, such as Virginia Tech, are requiring all on-campus residents to be tested before moving in, and recommending tests for all other students. Although CDC guidelines give universities the final say in reopening, requiring testing is a good start to ensuring that students remain healthy and safe while on campus.

College campuses are exactly the kind of environments in which COVID-19 spreads easily, with classes being held indoors and expected student gatherings in libraries, student unions and dorm rooms. With no significant changes in the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19, and with students returning to campus from regions currently experiencing outbreaks, the failure to take preventative measures such as mandatory testing endangers not only students, but faculty, staff and the underlying Chapel Hill and Carrboro communities as well.

Though it's too late to require testing before returning to campus, the University should require regular testing throughout the semester, and ensure that tests are accessible and affordable for all students regardless of whether or not they are symptomatic. In fact, experts have suggested that testing students every two days could be significantly useful in preventing the spread of the virus.

Although these measures can be expensive, batch testing can stretch capacity while significantly reducing expenses. If testing is not plausible for all UNC students, it may be worthwhile to reduce testing to students living on campus and those still commuting to campus for in-person classes. The alternative, which seems to be looming in the distance, is being forced to abruptly end classes midway through the semester due to an outbreak.

Testing for COVID-19 is imperative to identify individuals who may be unknowingly carrying the virus and passing it along to their fellow students, faculty and staff across campus. In addition to social distancing and wearing masks, testing is a way to prevent outbreaks from occurring — giving UNC a shot at reopening safely. However, if the administration chooses to ignore the plethora of research supporting preventative testing measures, we can all expect to be back in our hometowns finishing up with online classes by the end of September.


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