The University of Michigan community needs a better testing plan

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Update 10/20/20: Because the University has been unable to implement an effective testing and tracing strategy, today Washtenaw County put a two-week stay-at-home order in place for all UM students. In light of this development, once again we are pleading:

—UMich needs population-wide surveillance  testing. The current “Sampling and Tracking Program” is inadequate. Participation must be mandatory, not opt-in.

—Accountability must be built in via the underutilized ResponsiBlue app.

—Students must be able to obtain a test from UHS for ANY reason at any time.

—Tracing must be prompt. 


We are students, parents, faculty, alumni, and Ann Arbor residents who are deeply concerned about the paucity of testing in the University’s opening plans. We were promised, from the beginning, a “public health-informed in-residence semester," but the University is failing to deliver on this promise. A plan that does not include frequent testing (asymptomatic surveillance testing) for the entire student body is not safe for our students or the surrounding community, and will result in a truncated in-person semester, as we have seen happen at UNC and Notre Dame, among others. UMich's own ethicists have expressed grave concern with its plans.

Large institutions doing frequent testing include Boston UniversityBrandeisCornellDuke, Georgia TechHarvardMITNortheastern, Ohio Statethe University of Illinois, the University of MassachusettsYale , and others. They have created their own labs and set up testing stations open 7 days a week. To protect students, and for them to have any hope of completing the semester on campus without another shutdown, as well as to protect the Ann Arbor community to which the school owes so much, Michigan must join their ranks as soon as possible.

There are plans for up to 3000 opt-in asymptomatic tests/week. However, as of this writing (edit 9/10/2020), according to the UMich covid dashboard, only 1,906 tests have been done in the past 14 days. In addition, this partial surveillance program is opt-in only, which will make comprehensive randomized sampling extrapolated to the entire student population impossible. This late-breaking plan is far from the "optimal strategy" of full population testing.

President Schlissel has commented that more frequent testing would strain the University’s capacity, but schools around the country have built or repurposed labs. Regarding cost, both University of Illinois' SHIELD saliva test and Yale's Saliva Direct are estimated to be $5-10 apiece to process. There are also point-of-use rapid tests which do not require lab space.  

Testing primarily only symptomatic patients is not good science. The virus is also spread by  presymptomatic and asymptomatic patients. It's particularly worrisome that Gen Z is the most likely cohort to be infected, yet asymptomatic. To quote Brandeis' plan:"Because the majority of COVID-19 transmissions occur from people who don't know they are infected, symptom checks are insufficient to detect infections. Warning people that they are infected as early as possible reduces opportunities for transmission and keeps our community safe, in combination with other measures to reduce spread (masks and physical distancing)."

We need UM to do everything in its power to make this in-person semester possible, and that includes a much more robust testing regimen.


UPDATE 8/31/20: Institutions across the country are also using wastewater testing. Cases have already been caught at several schools. UMich already has researchers working on this low-cost detection method--it should be formally launched for all dorms as soon as possible.

UPDATE 9/10/20: The petition has been edited to reflect the start of the "Community Sampling and Tracking Program,"which is opt-in only and not yet operational.

The title was changed to The University of Michigan community needs more covid testing (rather than "students")--because faculty and staff need to be protected too.

Links to new research have also been added, including this piece from The British Medical Journal, which states:
"Viral transmission between asymptomatic students can occur at lightning speed in [congregate] settings. Adopting symptom based covid-19 screening, as used by many universities, is not a robust prevention strategy....This recommendation is not evidence based. Model based evidence shows that preventing outbreaks requires high frequency screening of all students on campus. An epidemic modelling study found that, assuming typical behaviour of college students, universal screening using a rapid, cheap, high specificity test—even if low sensitivity—every two to three days is the optimal strategy."