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University to bolster surveillance testing program; will include some non-resident students

Seton Hall announced on Thursday that it would expand COVID-19 surveillance testing among its student body starting on Feb. 9.

Students from all three of Seton Hall’s campuses and all non-resident students who have indicated they will participate in HyFlex for the spring semester will now be eligible for random COVID-19 testing under the updated program guidelines.

The University will contract with Healthcare IT Leaders, a Georgia-based healthcare delivery firm that offers testing and contact tracing solutions, to help administer the program, provide on-site staffing, and distribute testing kits.

Under the previous guidelines, only 5% of resident students living on the South Orange campus were subject to random COVID-19 screenings per week. However, off-campus and graduate students were eligible to participate in the program up to once per week voluntarily.

“Although several public health statistics have recently improved, the continued spread of the virus, uncertainty regarding the new variants, and the pace of the state’s vaccination rollout led us to make this decision,” the University’s announcement said.

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Students walk on the University's South Orange campus on Jan. 29. (Nicholas Kerr/Editor-in-Chief)

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Since reopening in January, the University has detected 35 cases of the coronavirus associated with the South Orange campus to date, 25 of which have come in the last week. So far, no cases have been detected this semester on either the Law or Interprofessional Health Sciences campuses.

The expansion of the program was a welcome shift for Dr. Brian Nichols, an associate professor of biology at Seton Hall with a history of studying coronaviruses, who said that expanding testing was the key to opening up any institution, particularly as the nationwide vaccine rollout continues to move at a slow crawl.

“I think it's more than time to start testing people outside of the campus and expanding the testing,” he said.

Nichols has criticized the University’s testing protocols in the past and called the risk of an outbreak “unacceptably high” in September after the Director of Health Services Diane Lynch said that that testing close contacts of students who test positive for COVID-19 was “more of an optional thing” if they do not exhibit symptoms.

Still, Nichols said that it is hard to say if the new guidelines will go far enough without specific data on how many people the University plans to test on a weekly basis.

“Most places would say you’re going to have to test everyone very, very regularly, and that's going to be multiple times each semester,” he said. “Certainly, last semester, I think, at best, we got everyone twice depending on if you had symptoms or if you were exposed to the virus. So, I think really you need to be testing, at least the resident students, multiple times every semester.”

In terms of other coronavirus mitigation measures he would like to see the University take, Nichols said that he is hopeful that the University will continue to diligently police social distancing and mask wearing on campus and increase the number of students in single-occupancy dorms.

“I think Seton Hall students have managed this much better than other universities. When I see students inside of the classroom, they're all socially distanced and everybody has their mask on,” he said.

Overall, until the pace of vaccine distribution picks up, Nichols says that expanded testing will be one of the keys to safely operating the University this semester.

“It seems like [Seton Hall] learned a lot of lessons from last semester,” Nichols said, “and I'm hoping that they're going to expand the testing even further.”

Nicholas Kerr can be reached at nicholas.kerr@student.shu.edu. Find him on Twitter @nickdotkerr.

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