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The Daily Tar Heel

Editorial: Is COVID-19 testing a double-edged sword?

A student puts her COVID-19 test in the tube at the Rams Head Recreation CTTP testing site on Jan. 19, 2021.

In early March, with the threat of the pandemic lurking in the shadows, attending a party came with the fear of a hangover. Now, it pairs with a probability of exposure. Buying a round for the table next to you at Might As Well used to be a gesture of friendship. Today, it might as well come with a side of mandatory quarantine. 

The normal social college scene was one of spread: the spread of ideas, connections and everyday germs. Now, much of that has changed.

One thing that has remained constant, however, is the false confidence brusquely exhibited by college students in all forms. From drunken rooftop jumps onto tables to thinking that one all-night study session will lead to an aced exam, this confidence is dangerous even in a "normal" year.

Now, the danger of this false confidence is intertwined with the COVID-19 conversation. What might that look like? Could it be someone who treats their negative test as a hall pass to gallivant around with others who treat their negative tests the same? What happens when test results are delayed, but the party isn’t? Does this new heavy testing regime provide enough justification for joining the social gatherings we've seen exhibited on social media

If an example is needed, turn to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose mass testing plan saw many different roadblocks, including a mid-semester lockdown due to a spike in COVID-19 cases. Carriers of the virus can spread it to others before experiencing symptoms — and even before they test positive. This was what led to unseen rapid growth at U of I, despite their comprehensive testing program, and revealed how student irresponsibility can impede plans for returning to campus.

This isn’t to say that we should disparage UNC's new testing procedures for the spring semester. UNC has finally begun to right the ship when it comes to testing, from mandatory reentry testing to requiring on-campus students to perform a nasal swab twice a week. 

Compared to the first two weeks of the fall semester, we’ve seen a decrease in the positive test rate (10 percent to 1 percent) and an increase in the number of tests performed (1,737 to 13,009). Case numbers have remained consistent instead of growing exponentially, which are all good signs that COVID-19 guidelines are being taken seriously in comparison to the fall.

The goal of low case numbers should be to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. With mandatory testing, potential hotspots can be quickly identified and isolated, keeping case counts low. 

But testing isn’t the gold standard of COVID-19 precautions. Testing is only for mitigation after exposure. Mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing are still the pillars of disease control and prevention. With new, more contagious strains being identified and vaccination rollout underway, preventative measures against coronavirus are more important than ever.

So, for your friends who are struggling without in-person instruction, for the seniors who just want some sense of closure as their time at UNC winds down and for those who you haven’t been able to see since last spring, don’t get complacent. 

Keep up with testing, but don’t treat it as a ticket to ignore the pandemic.


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