UConn faculty reflect on surveillance testing efforts, look to the future

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UConn has utilized pooled testing for COVID-19 to more efficiently utilize resources while working with UConn’s low positivity rate. Rachel O’Neill, professor of molecular and cell biology, described the program as both low-cost and high ability to perform more in-depth tests of high-positivity rate areas. Photo by Ashley Anglisano / The Daily Campus.

Rachel O’Neill, professor of molecular and cell biology, Kendra Maas, facility scientist at the University of Connecticut’s MARS and Suzanne Onorato, executive director of student health and wellness, touched on the success of UConn’s fall testing efforts and discussed their hopes and plans for the spring. 

O’Neill began by providing a brief description of why the saliva testing effort is valuable. In essence, she said the pooled testing efforts were done to more efficiently utilize resources while working with UConn’s low positivity rate. 

“The overarching goal of this whole collective program is to reduce costs significantly and save critical, clinical-level tests for symptomatic or high-positivity rate areas,” O’Neill said. “Right now, we’re at a really low positivity rate, so it’s an ideal approach to take.”  

Maas further emphasized UConn’s successful numbers so far. She said this reflects students’ general willingness to follow CDC guidelines and regulations. 

“I can say that, so far, the surveillance screening that we have done has been remarkably low positives, and that’s been reflected by follow-up point of care tests and that percentage that we’re seeing at UConn, which is lower than the state, so we can say that students are doing a good job of following those CDC guidelines,” Maas said. 

One of the major challenges that the administration has faced is clearly communicating objectives to students. In addition to the group testing being done, Onorato wanted to draw attention to Dr. Maas’s work with wastewater sampling. Onorato said they hope to expand this test to get even more accurate readings of where the COVID-19 increase may have originated. Photo by Ashley Anglisano / The Daily Campus.

In addition to the group testing being done, Onorato wanted to draw attention to Dr. Maas’s work with wastewater sampling. Onorato said they hope to expand this test to get even more accurate readings of where the COVID-19 increase may have originated. 

“When a particular wastewater site begins to have an increase in the presence of COVID, we then deploy pooled sampling to screen those students who reside in that area,” Onorato said. “This then allows for us to locate the positive cases early on and allows for rapid containment of the spread of COVID. We would like to continue to both create more local sources for wastewater testing in order to get even closer to the source with our pooled sampling.”  

O’Neill said one of the major challenges they have faced so far has been clearly communicating everything to students. She said it is their responsibility to convey information to students well. 

“We’ve actually done collaborations with amazing teams on campus … who are going to help us translate this information and make it publicly available because I think it is our responsibility to translate that information and allow people to know ‘this is the level when you should be worried,’ and this is more informational and we need to be keeping track,” O’Neill said. 

O’Neill also said it was important to note the expanse of the program and the amount of collaboration it has required. In particular, she noted the work done by UConn facilities to help Dr. Maas install her wastewater monitoring systems. 

“This project has been collaborative and huge. It’s involved many, many groups on campus who have been incredible at stepping up to try to protect the safety of the students,” O’Neill said. “Facilities have been right there every step of the way helping Kendra put these wastewater monitoring systems in place. It’s just been absolutely incredible to watch.” 

Maas wanted to draw attention to the work being done by the student body as well. She said she has several UConn students, both graduate and undergraduate, assisting with her work. 

“All of the technicians who are doing this are students,” Maas said. “I have three masters grad students who do most of the lab work, and then I have a couple of undergrads who are helping collect samples and distribute tubing. This is all students.” 

Onorato spoke about future testing plans and the potential expansion of surveillance testing. She said this would likely be done in addition to educational efforts that showed proper strategies for the UConn student body regarding COVID-19. 

“ISG is also interested in expanding the surveillance testing strategy across campus in order to meet an increasing desire for expanded testing as well as promoting education to the broader student community regarding UConn’s COV2 strategy (through a new partnership with the newly established DxGroup at UConn),” Onorato said. “We are also considering a more routine pooled sampling approach for our residential student population.” 

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