Testing delays and symptom checker struggles mark New College’s first month of COVID-19 testing

If selected for random testing students should report to the CWC.

In August as students and employees began to trickle back to campus, New College began random testing of students and employees. Only students who had registered with the University of South Florida’s (USF) symptom tracking system were in the eligible testing pool. However, as of September 21, the college has begun selecting students for testing by meal plan enrollment until more students are enrolled in USF’s symptom tracker. 

The college has not recorded any positive cases, despite complications stemming from its reliance on USF’s medical services and testing delays over Labor Day weekend. Interim Dean of Students Randy Harrell expressed that he had a positive outlook on the strides that New College has made in COVID-19 testing relative to other institutions in Florida’s State University System (SUS). 

“We are one of only two campuses in the SUS that don’t have a full medical center on campus, so we have initiated [random testing] despite having to overcome some hurdles that other campuses haven’t had to overcome,” Harrell said.

Because the college lacks an on-campus medical center, it outsourced COVID-19 testing operations and medical services to USF and a small local lab called Lab Services. New College contracted with Lab Services for COVID-19 test administration and processing on Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s recommendation. 

However, over the Labor Day weekend, a mixture of factors caused delays in Lab Services’ ability to return COVID-19 tests in a timely manner.

According to Vice President of Finance and Administration Christian Kinsley, the weekly round of COVID-19 testing was originally scheduled for September 3 and 4, but was pushed back by two business days to September 8 and 9 due to Labor Day, which fell on September 7. A lab technician at the company also experienced a personal emergency, which contributed to the delay.

In an email to students, President Donal O’Shea described Lab Services as “very vulnerable if one of their staff encounters a medical or home emergency,” but confirmed that the college has resolved the issues and will continue working with them. 

In order to track symptoms across the campus population, New College has also been collaborating with USF. New College was a part of USF for three decades before the Florida state legislature granted the college independence in 2001, but both institutions continue to share some services such as the Jane Bancroft Cook Library, the Campus Police Department and the Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC). 

New College contracts with USF Health, which used to operate the health clinic at the CWC and contribute significantly to the CWC’s budget. However, USF has cut $200,000 in funding over the past three years and recently moved the clinic to the USF-Sarasota-Manatee campus because of a broader USF consolidation plan and a diminished budget at New College. 

“We don’t have enough students or money in the health fee to keep [the USF clinic at the CWC], we just don’t,” Fisher said. “I think we have the lowest health fee in the state and the lowest number of students, so we will be in the red next year.” 

Fisher emphasized that without any enrollment growth or health fee increases, the CWC will be in a dire financial situation next year. 

“There will be massive cuts happening,” Fisher warned. “This year we’re running on reserve [funding] and we’re going to burn through it this year.”

 To monitor students’ symptoms, New College is relying on the COVID-19 tracking system designed by USF. New College devised its own symptom tracker for staff and faculty, but students must enroll in USF’s symptom tracking system because USF is contracted to provide health services to students. As of September 16, only 277 students who indicated that they are coming to campus are in the system, but that is only approximately half of all of the students living on campus and in the local area. However, on September 21, Fisher said that approximately 380 were in the system. 

“We need more students to get in it because the daily symptom checker is the pool from which we are drawing the 10% random sample,” Fisher said. “The [380] people are where we’re pulling the random sample from. And it’s not really a random sample when it’s only half of the people coming to campus.”

The symptom reporting also helps medical services track what is happening across the campus population and connects students with health care.

“Testing is only part of this equation,” Fisher said.  “The most important part of this is to make sure that people get care when they are sick.”

Also, not every student who has been contacted for testing has shown up: according to Harrell, during the week of September 7—the second week of full random testing— only 68% of students contacted for random testing came.

“During the week of August 24, 21 students of the 30 invited actually showed up, while during the week of September 8, 16 students of 34 came for testing,” Fisher said. “Last week (9/14) 10 students came of 30 invited, likely due to poor weather.” 

Counseling and Wellness Center Representative Alexandra Conte thinks not enough students have signed up with the USF system because of technical issues with registering and systemic issues with the symptom tracker itself. 

“There’ve been a lot of issues with the system through USF,” Conte said. “It’s a lot of effort to have students go out of their way to call—be put possibly on hold—to register. That makes it less accessible.”

Moreover, students with seasonal allergies unrelated to COVID-19 may be disproportionately selected as individuals of concern by the symptom checking system.

“We are trying to monitor the symptoms, but there are people that would get flagged daily for things that are out of their control,” Conte said.

Additionally, all on-campus COVID-19 tests must be ordered by Dr. Joseph Puccio, the health services director for USF and faculty in the USF College of Medicine. Despite some complications with the USF symptom checking system, Fisher expressed her consistent satisfaction with Puccio’s pivotal role in testing at New College.

“We actually only had [Dr. Puccio] on for 28 hours per week, but he’s basically on call whenever we get a positive or need to move people in and out,” Fisher said.

On top of the lack of an on-campus medical center, New College is paying for all COVID-19 testing without federal aid or insurance subsidies. Each COVID-19 test costs $95 to administer and process. The college has paid Lab Services $38,000 in advance for 400 tests.

“Over $400,000 in federal COVID-19 money to the college went to housing refunds for the spring, so all that money is gone,” Kinsley said. “Funding for campus testing is coming from Education and General (E&G) reserves from the 2019-20 fiscal year.” 

Moreover, most insurance companies do not cover sentinel testing, or random testing for asymptomatic individuals, which is the type of preventative testing New College is conducting to monitor potential COVID-19 cases in the student population. The lack of coverage continues despite the fact that recent studies have indicated that 30% of those infected spread the virus asymptomatically.

Despite some of the challenges that have arisen from funding troubles, testing delays and reliance on USF’s medical services, Fisher and Harrell emphasized that one of the most beneficial things a student can do is sign up for and use the daily COVID-19 symptom checker.

“It is imperative that all of us use the symptom tracker on a daily basis,” Harrell wrote in an email to the student body. “The reason New College is doing so much better than many universities is directly related to the vision you have as a citizen of our community.”

Testing is every week on Mondays from noon to 4 pm and Tuesdays from 9 to noon.

Fisher also stressed that students should contact her with issues, “especially if they have a screenshot of what’s going on, because then I can forward it up to the team of people in Tampa,” Fisher said. 

If students are having trouble accessing the application, Fisher recommended that students email her at fisher@ncf.edu and contact the USF tech support. The phone number to call is (813) 974-HELP (4357) option 6, which is specially set up for New College students.

Regardless of initial hurdles and intrinsic flaws with the USF symptom checker, without consistent student enrollment and use of the system currently in place, New College is more vulnerable to an undetected outbreak.

“I think it’s already here, but I think we just don’t know,” Conte said. “I don’t think we’ve necessarily caught it, but I think it’s here.”

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