Surveillance testing implemented to catch outbreaks early

Baylor began surveillance testing random samples of the campus population every seven days on Aug. 31. One of the testing locations is Tent #4 at the Fountain Mall. Chase (Junyan) Li | Photographer & Videographer

By Vivian Roach | Staff Writer

The first week of surveillance testing data has shown six positive cases out of 337 tests collected thus far. Test results are still to be filtered in as they are collected and returned throughout the week.

Baylor began testing random samples of the campus population every seven days on Aug. 31. Those selected for random sampling are notified each Wednesday.

The random sample includes 250 on-campus students, 480 off-campus students (including online-only students who live in Waco), 175 on-campus faculty and staff and 300 contractors. These numbers represent 5% of the off-campus student body, 5% of on-campus students (including 5% of each residence hall’s population), 5% of faculty and staff and 50% of contractors for their involvement, activity and close contact with all parts of campus.

These populations equal a total sample size of 1,205 people. Vice President for Marketing & Communications Jason Cook explained at this time only 337 tests are recorded on the COVID-19 dashboard because test results are still being collected from last week and some of the sample group have yet to take their test.

“These numbers are not going to be Monday through Friday numbers. With our external firm doing a lot of the testing, My Labs Direct, there is anywhere from a 48- to 60-hour lag time from receiving those test results,” Cook said. “If it’s positive, they will go back and retroactively count those to when the test was taken.”

Nevertheless, surveillance test data is filtered through and added to the dashboard daily.

Dean for Student Health and Wellness Dr. Jim Marsh explained the weekly surveillance testing is done with My Labs Direct, and not the Health Center’s rapid antigen test, for capacity reasons.

Clinical testing done with the rapid antigen test are from those experiencing symptoms or identified as a close contact. The rapid tests produce results in 15 to 30 minutes, minimizing exposure if it is a positive. Surveillance testing uses a random sample that is not necessarily experiencing symptoms or a close contact.

“This is our community. It gives us a good presence of the virus. It helps us do some things because of the way we have broken it down in terms of residence halls,” Marsh said. “It helps us have a view of whether we see any places in our community where there is an uptick in the number of positive cases, allowing us to be targeted in our interventions.”

In the residence halls, surveillance testing has helped catch outbreaks such as in Martin Residence Hall last week. Once there was an uptick, close contacts were put in quarantine to be contact traced and tested further.

Marsh said a few more positive case were detected in Collins Residence Hall last week, but after closely monitoring the situation, no further actions were needed.

Baylor’s COVID-19 dashboard now lists separate positivity rates for surveillance testing and clinical testing. Testing data from cases at Martin and Collins was submitted as clinical, so the surveillance positivity rate on the dashboard won’t reflect those tests.

As the situation is monitored not only in residence halls, but all across campus, surveillance testing will continue each week until Nov. 20. Though they plan to do it for the rest of the semester, Marsh said with developments in testing, there is a possibility of shifting their strategy.

“We have a group that meets every week or every two weeks always looking at testing developments, keeping an eye on it. If we think this is working for us, we will continue. If there is another way that might be better, there is a chance that at some point we will shift our strategy,” Marsh said. “Right now it is working, it’s doing what we thought it would.”

Other methods such as sewage testing have been implemented, but Marsh said the data is still pretty new.

“What I can tell you is right now that data is in its infancy. We’re still early on and we have a couple weeks of data,” Marsh said. “We are working on it, starting to see some connections, but still careful of how we interpret that data. It’s like anything with data: we’re cautious, cautious not to put too much stock in it, careful to watch and monitor.”