For Undergraduates, a Smooth Test Run

Early arrivals begin their coronavirus testing regimen, the foundation of Tufts’ safety plan
Students line up for their COVID-19 tests inside the Gantcher Center. Tufts University's comprehensive testing regimen is meant to minimize the risk of coronavirus spread.
Once students set foot on the Medford/Somerville campus, they head to the Gantcher Center, where they take their initial coronavirus tests. “My last test didn’t even take two minutes,” said Ashley Degen, E23. Photo: Alonso Nichols
August 27, 2020

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Move-in at Tufts has begun, starting with the approximately 1,200 undergraduates arriving from outside the region who will be living on campus. Between now and August 30, they will all take their initial COVID-19 test—the easiest test students will take at Tufts.

Once students set foot on the Medford/Somerville campus, they head to the Gantcher Center, where they’ll take their coronavirus test under the observation of a medical professional. It’s self-administered—just swipe a swab in your nose and pop the swab into a tube—and quick. You can watch a video here that shows exactly how it works.

Video: Jean Ayers, Jandro Cisneros, and Matt Beliveau. Graphics courtesy of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

“These tests are super, super easy,” said Josh Hartman, director of residential life and learning.

Hartman said the Gantcher Center will be staffed to test up to 40 students each hour, which includes time to explain how future testing and the quarantine process will work and answer any questions. “We’re expecting about 400 people per day” over the next few days, he said.

Just before 10 a.m. on Thursday, August 27, more than 20 staff members were helping onboard about 10 students, who were not only taking their COVID-19 tests but picking up masks and wipes, hearing info on Tufts Dining, and getting help with their IDs and keys.

Close to 2,000 people, including students who were living on campus during the summer and resident assistants, have already gone through the testing protocol at the Gantcher Center, which has been open for testing 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. since August 14.

“We’re doing pretty well so far,” Hartman said. “Even when there is a line, there is distancing, and everyone is wearing masks.”

The biggest thing families can do to help with the process is to try to stick to their scheduled testing times. The Office of Residential Life has rearranged slots at the request of several families, including those whose travel plans were impacted by Hurricane Laura, but if families can keep to their original one-hour window it will make the onboarding process that much smoother.

In-region, off-campus students will take their tests September 1-7, followed by in-region, on-campus students September 8-13.

The testing regimen, which is designed to detect infection early and minimize the risk of coronavirus spread, is the cornerstone of the university’s array of plans to keep everyone safe.

While some colleges and universities are only testing a portion of their students, Tufts is testing all undergraduate students—whether they live on campus or off—as soon as they return to Tufts and twice a week thereafter. That’s the frequency that mathematical modelers have shown makes the most sense among residential and other community populations for catching new cases before they spread widely to others.

Students coming to Tufts from outside the region will quarantine until they have three negative tests—well beyond what Massachusetts requires—to make sure any virus they may have picked while traveling is detected by the tests. They will have to quarantine for up to a week until all three results are in.

Following the arrival and quarantine period of the out-of-region students, Tufts students who come from within the region (that’s Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, New York, or New Jersey) will quarantine until they get a negative test result. (All students will get meals delivered by Tufts Dining while they wait for their first test results.)

Sarah Wiener, A21, shares her experience taking a COVID-19 test at Tufts.

Students who have already been through the testing process have given it their approval.

Ashley Degen, E23, a mechanical engineering major who returned early for her resident assistant training, said the COVID-19 test the state required her to take before leaving Colorado to fly to Massachusetts was pretty uncomfortable. Not so with the tests she has taken at Tufts.

“This one is so much better,” she said. “You blow your nose, you peel out the cotton swab, you swab your nose yourself and put the swab in the bottle. My last test didn’t even take two minutes,” and that included tapping her ID card to automatically print a label for the tube, handing off the vial, and sanitizing her hands on the way out.

Degen said she’s not worried about fitting the twice-weekly surveillance testing into her busy life. Once students are able to schedule their tests through the app that Tufts has developed, she expects it will be easy to get a reminder to stop by a testing site after class. “I just need to plan it into my routine,” she said.

Where she lived in Colorado, she said there were those who took mask-wearing and other precautions seriously, but many who did not. “It was nowhere near the New England level of serious,” she said. “Honestly, I feel safer here.”

Though early in the process, the results thus far have been promising. As of August 25, results of 6,215 tests from across Tufts have been returned and only three asymptomatic positive individuals have been identified, none on the Medford/Somerville campus. Up-to-date information is available to the general public through a dashboard on coronavirus.tufts.edu.

Testing isn’t only for students, of course. Faculty and staff will also be tested regularly, as often as twice a week, according to how often their jobs bring them in close contact with others on campus.

All the testing will not only identify people who need to be isolated and monitored for the care they may need but will also trigger a contact tracing process to notify people who may have been exposed by them. The testing data will also help the university make real-time decisions about campus operations, such as whether to temporarily suspend some in-person classes.

Hartman said he emphasizes to students that routine testing is not about protecting themselves; it is about protecting everyone around them—including, say, dining workers, custodial staff, or neighbors in our host communities.

“A lot of people don't have any symptoms, aren't sick, don't recognize that they've had an exposure, and they're carrying this thing,” Hartman tells them. “You can unwittingly be exposing folks to virus without knowing it. It’s not fair to put other people at risk just because you don’t want to take a test.”

Hartman said he recognizes that testing, social distancing and wearing masks all the time is really challenging for a lot of folks, especially college-age students.

“But on a personal level, I have a lot of faith in the Tufts community,” he said, including not just students but faculty, staff, and visitors. “I have confidence that we all care enough about the world around us that we will take this seriously and that we're all going to hunker down and do what we need to do.”

So far, he has been impressed, not just with how easily students have taken to the testing process, but with their embrace of social distancing rules. “I've seen students sitting out on the President's Lawn with seven to eight feet between them wearing masks and hanging out with each other, and that is totally appropriate,” he said. “I think our students really get it.”

You can read all the details about Tufts’ comprehensive testing program, including how students will isolate should they test positive, at coronavirus.tufts.edu/testing-at-tufts. It’s a key part of Tufts broader effort to protect the safety of members of the university and its host communities through education, masks, physical distancing, hand hygiene, self-reported diagnosis, active health screening, enhanced ventilation, and ongoing cleaning.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.