New data shows Seton Hall lags behind some of its peer institutions in coronavirus testing, according to a Setonian analysis of institutional testing data across three other Catholic-midsize universities.
Since Sept. 4, the first day Seton Hall launched its coronavirus dashboard that included the number of total tests it has administered, the University has conducted 137 tests over a 14-day period. Comparatively, Villanova University, Notre Dame University and Providence College have reported much larger numbers of tests over the same period—1,113, 5,539 and 7,004, respectively.
Notre Dame made national headlines back in August when it began reporting a surge of coronavirus cases after bringing students back to campus, prompting the University to suspend in-person classes for two weeks. Notre Dame resumed in-person classes on Sept. 2 following a decline in cases, with the University's dashboard reporting an estimated 43 active cases as of Monday.
Last Thursday, Providence College announced that it also would have to pivot to online learning for the next week after detecting 80 positive cases of the coronavirus through its testing protocol. Providence also issued a stay-at-home order for all students during that period, blocking them from leaving campus.
“You will find a wide array of approaches to health and safety at the 4,000+ colleges and universities throughout the nation,” Matthew Borowick (‘89), co-chair of the Seton Hall’s Health Intervention and Communication Team (HICT), said in response to the findings.
“Your comparison school sampling does not note that you chose two schools with very recent outbreaks, which would naturally lead to a higher level of testing in response to identified cases,” Borowick said, referencing the mid-August coronavirus outbreak at Notre Dame and the recent outbreak at Providence College.
Yet even prior to Providence College’s outbreak the school outpaced Seton Hall in coronavirus tests, with Providence recording 3,865 tests between Sept. 4 and Sept. 15 compared to 125 tests at Seton Hall.
For its part, Notre Dame, while still not virus-free, has not seen a significant uptick in cases since reopening on Sept. 2 and has actually seen a decline in its seven-day moving average of positive cases.
Since Sept. 4, only three days saw increases in the total number of tests on Seton Hall’s dashboard -- Sept. 10, Sept. 15 and Sept. 18 when 17, 108 and 12 tests were logged.
At one point, Seton Hall’s dashboard went without an update for four days between Sept. 10 and Sept. 15, but on some days, such as between Sept. 4 and Sept. 10, the University marked its dashboard as having been updated, though the total number of tests remained unchanged.
According to an email from the University’s Health Intervention and Communication Team sent out to the campus community last Thursday evening, Seton Hall “conducted 104 tests last week,” 38 of which were new resident students receiving their initial COVID-19 screenings, with all tests returning negative for the coronavirus.
The email also noted that included in the test totals are student-athletes being tested in accordance with Big East conference guidelines, “students participating in health care clinical settings, student teachers in classroom settings who require testing, as well as all students with concerns that they are symptomatic and who ask for a level of reassurance when not feeling well.”
The University did not say to what degree it was screening for asymptomatic cases outside of the surveillance testing it conducts on students who are athletes, working in clinical settings or in a K-12 classroom setting.
In total, Seton Hall has conducted more than 1,900 tests since July 9, the bulk of which were given to students as they moved into residence halls on campus. On Aug. 26, the University reported in a statement that it had tested “1,500 students to date,” indicating that roughly 400 tests have been conducted since move-in was officially completed.
Other institutions, like Providence, Villanova and Notre Dame have reported administering 14,835, 1,846 and 15,010 tests total since early August, though Villanova’s total does not include baseline tests administered to students, faculty and staff as they returned to campus in the fall like Seton Hall’s does.
It is unclear prior to Sept. 4 how many tests were being conducted per day and, to a degree, continues to remain unclear as the University only sporadically updates its dashboard. A request to the University’s Office of Media Relations asking for data on how many tests were conducted per day between Sept. 4 and Sept. 16, filed last Wednesday, went unanswered.
Just two weeks ago, Dr. Brian Nichols, a virologist with a background in studying coronaviruses and an assistant professor of biology at Seton Hall, expressed concerns about the University’s testing protocols, calling the risk of an outbreak on campus “unacceptably high” and noting that “lack of regular testing is a flaw that creates an unacceptable risk.”
In response to the new data, Nichols told The Setonian in a second interview that if these testing numbers are accurate then they are “very low.”
“If you're not testing on a daily basis, or at least regularly, then it could really get out of control before you even know it's there,” Nichols warned, noting that people in the 19 to 24-year-old age range tend to be asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus.
Additionally, Nichols said that the first case of the fall semester the University caught was an asymptomatic case that, under the current testing protocols, Seton Hall likely would have missed had they not conducted entrance testing on every resident student.
“I don't understand why we have to wait for symptomatic cases before we test when we can be proactively doing it,” Nichols said, adding that while he understands there is a cost involved with testing, there are methods that can facilitate widespread surveillance testing at a lower price point.
Nichols mentioned the concept of pool testing as a method to test for the virus effectively at a lower cost. Pool testing, according to the CDC, involves pooling together respiratory tests from several individuals and screening the pooled sample for the coronavirus.
“At least that gives you some degree of an idea,” Nichols said. “It doesn't tell you exactly who has it, but it lets you know if the virus is on campus.”
In a Sept. 3 interview with CNN, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the nation’s leading immunologists, listed colleges performing sufficient surveillance testing on their student bodies as one of the key criteria for colleges to safely reopen for the fall.
“They've got to have the capability of doing the testing to begin with," Fauci said. "They've got to have the capability of doing surveillance testing as you get into the school year, and they have to have a plan of how they handle the inevitability of some students who are going to wind up getting infected."
According to Borowick, the University’s approach is consistent with CDC guidance for areas in which there is moderate to substantial community transmission of the virus, which states that local health officials and universities “may consider testing some or all asymptomatic students, faculty, and staff who have no known exposure (e.g., students in congregate housing such as residence halls) to identify outbreaks and inform control measures.”
“This is consistent with Seton Hall’s approach; the results of such tests would provide indicators that SHU would use to increase surveillance testing,” Borowick said.
“Many epidemiologists think you have to be testing two or three times a week” in order to detect cases promptly Nichols noted when asked if there were any models universities should be looking to for testing protocols. “But again, I think most universities simply lack the resources to do that.”
According to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation COVID-19 projection model, coronavirus cases in New Jersey are predicted to start increasing in the coming weeks, with cases peaking in January as cold weather allows for the virus to flourish.
“It's one of those old adages that all models are wrong, but some models are useful,” Nichols said of the projection, warning that it was not concrete.
“Still if we get complacent, cases sure can go up. And especially we know that SARS coronaviruses and other respiratory viruses spread really well during the fall and winter months. That's when we start to see increases of respiratory infection, so I'm a real big proponent of testing,” Nichols said, noting that if there isn’t an outbreak on campus, there’s a chance that it could be because the rate of transmission and cases have remained low in New Jersey over the last few months.
In response, Borowick said that the University recognizes that “individual experts throughout the nation have varying opinions about health care protocols and government policies designed to safely navigate the effects of the pandemic,” adding that the plan was a “months-long effort” by over 140 individuals.
“The plan meets and exceeds CDC guidelines and has been confirmed by the State of New Jersey,” Borowick said.
“I just would like to see our university be a little bit more proactive and do more testing,” Nichols added, “Just to make sure that we can catch these cases.”
Nicholas Kerr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @nickdotkerr.