While Alabama has little good news regarding Covid-19, a recent article on AL.com about how a number of entities have combined efforts to make sure every student returning to a institution of higher education in the next few weeks will be tested for the virus prior to enrolling shows what we are capable of.  It is interesting that I can’t find mention of any politician anywhere in this plan.

“The state of Alabama released new details Friday about its plan, called GuideSafe, to test more than 200,000 college students for COVID-19 before they return to campus this year.

“We started really less than six weeks ago, and developed in that time, a complete platform to test up to 10-15,000 students a day as they return to campus over a three and a half week period,” said Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The program will pay for coronavirus testing for all college students before they return to campus, and many schools will require a negative test result before a student can begin taking classes on campus. The program is being funded from money allocated to Alabama by the federal CARES Act legislation.

The sampling will begin in two pilot locations on Sunday and by August 4 will expand to 13 locations across the state, a remarkable feat of logistics, according to Dr. Saag and his co-chair of the GuideSafe steering committee, Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris.

Gene Hallman — president and CEO of the Bruno Event Team, which normally organizes sporting events — said the process was designed to be as easy as possible for the students.

“I would like to emphasize for the students that this will be a very convenient process, one where they schedule their appointments on the hour, so that there’s not an overload,” Hallman said. “It’s a very quick and easy, convenient and complimentary way to gauge whether you have the coronavirus.”

Saag, speaking during a press conference online on Friday afternoon, said that by limiting the number of students who show up on campus positive for the virus, the schools can help reduce the chances of outbreaks during the semester.

“What we’re doing is we’re going to try to start with as clean slate as we can, on every campus, emphasize distancing like we do for everyone, every student is going to be asked to wear a mask, as well as all the staff and the faculty on the campus to try to mitigate the spread while they’re there.”

Saag said that if the students take the proper precautions, the worst outbreaks can be avoided.

“My hope is that if everyone’s wearing a mask when they’re out and about, when they’re inside enclosed spaces, that we will start to see that number drop from 39 or so per 100,000 to where New York City is, which is only 3 per 100,000,” he said. “And when you get down to that number, then the chance of being in a room with somebody else who’s infected starts to become very, very small.”

How the testing will work

Beginning Sunday, students will receive an email at their school account asking them to schedule an appointment to be tested at one of 13 sites across the state.

Hallman said UAB had gathered data from the participating colleges on when the more than 200,000 students were returning to campus and attempted to stagger the testing appointments to minimize congestion and ensure the results come back in time.

He said students should be on the lookout for the email about testing and make sure they schedule their appointment in time.

“We cannot emphasize enough for the students to please be on the lookout for an email from their university or college regarding testing protocol regarding where they need to go and sign up,” Hallman said.

At the test sites, students will have a sample collected through a nasal swab, though not the long nasopharyngeal swab that causes significant discomfort. The program web site states that samples will be tested within 24 hours and that the students will be notified via email of the results.

Students who test positive will need to be cleared by their health care provider before returning to campus.

If a student has previously tested positive for the virus, they will not need to be re-tested if they have documentation from their health care provider that they are clear to return to campus. Students can also choose to be tested on their own, though the state will only pay for testing done through the program.

Out-of-state students and those who are returning to campus the earliest may be sent a mail-in test kit and instructions on how to sample themselves rather than having them travel to one of the test sites.

Saag said samples from multiple students — five to 10 at a time, depending on the circumstances — will be combined. If the pooled sample tests negative, all the students in the pool are negative. If the pooled sample tests positive, the lab can then test the individual samples to find which students in the pool are positive.

“By doing that approach, we believe that we can amplify the power of the testing that we do,” Saag said.

The pooled test approach saves time and material if there aren’t many positive tests.

”The thing that will throw us off is if the prevalence in the community of students is over 4%,” Saag said. “We don’t anticipate that based on preliminary data that we have so far, but it’s very fluid, and we’ll have to see what we get.”

Program could expand

Saag said the protocols being developed for this program were designed so they could be used by other entities such as private businesses to bring workers back into the fold as safely as possible, or by the Alabama Department of Public Health to respond to COVID hotspots in the state.