Ohio State to launch mandatory COVID-19 testing program for students

The Ohio Union at Ohio State University. Photo from Google Maps.

Ohio’s largest university began its early, voluntary phase last week of an ambitious COVID-19 surveillance plan for the looming pandemic semester.

But come Aug. 25, if randomly selected Ohio State University students opt out of swabs up their noses, they can expect a university order to quarantine, a referral to Student Conduct for non-compliance, and a student ID card that won’t open any OSU door but their dorms.

The plan goes like this: Before fall classes a “random sample” of OSU students will be tested for the new coronavirus, which can range in symptoms from nonexistent, to mild, to serious to lethal (rare in the collegiate age range).

Those results will give university administrators a baseline prevalence — the proportion of students administrators would expect to carry the new coronavirus at a given time in a batch of tests.

Then, OSU will test 300 randomly selected students every weekday (100 on Saturdays) for COVID-19, free of charge, regardless of exposure or symptoms to the virus.

The plan speaks to the challenges for public health officials responding to a virus that can both kill and spread without symptoms. It also speaks to the lengths powerful institutions will go to operate during a pandemic that has left more than 3,400 Ohioans dead. 

“Thank you in advance for participating in this important program and for your continued flexibility, cooperation and commitment,” states an email sent to selected students, provided to the Ohio Capital Journal. “Together as Buckeyes, we will fight COVID-19.”

An OSU spokesman declined a request to interview those involved in making the plan and did not answer several questions.

There are a handful of reasons a student can opt out of the testing, including:

  • A “sincerely held religious belief”
  • A disability that would “physically preclude” them from having the testing done
  • They are currently sick and unable to reach the testing facility
  • The student is enrolled online-only or at a branch campus

The university is also working on a plan to implement “sample pooling,” which would allow specimens from multiple students at the same time to conserve resources.

“The samples collected from the pool of individuals are tested in a pool or ‘batch’ using one test, rather than testing each individual sample,” the university wrote to students Tuesday in an email.

“If the pool is positive, one or more of the individuals tested in that pool may be infected, and each of the samples in that pool are tested again individually.”

Testing for symptomatic or exposed students, as well as voluntary asymptomatic faculty, staff and graduate students will be offered, per the university.

The Columbus Dispatch reports the university will be testing all students in dorms or university managed housing on a weekly basis, as well.

Ohio State’s plan is a more sophisticated approach to the vexing question of how large scale universities can operate during a pandemic brought on by a virus that can spread exponentially and at times deliver major complications even to its younger victims.

In July, Ohioans under 30 comprised roughly 14,000 cases — 36% of the July caseload. Since the pandemic began, 803 people under 30 have been hospitalized and 16 have died.

Most Ohio colleges don’t appear to have any surveillance plan. The University of Cincinnati’s back to school plan calls for testing of symptomatic individuals and those who may have been exposed. The guidance hints toward random testing in the future.

Ohio University will host some undergraduate and graduate students Aug. 24, with all other students beginning their classes online until Sept. 27. When students come back, the university will test only symptomatic students.

Kent State plans to prioritize testing for symptomatic patients, health care or “critical” employees, and contacts of a confirmed case.

Where these universities will obtain the test capacity for outbreaks, general spread and (in OSU’s case) surveillance is unclear given state and national testing shortages.

An earlier version of this story misstated Ohio University’s reopening plans.