OPINION: Is UNCW’s COVID-19 virus surveillance testing necessary?

Emma Sheeran, Opinion Writer

UNCW began implementing surveillance testing Feb. 8. UNCW residents are now required to get tested weekly, while off-campus students in hybrid classes are required to get tested every other week. The rapid antigen tests will be administered to students free of charge. The university has implemented this safety procedure to reduce the number of COVID-19 virus cases on campus and in the surrounding Wilmington community. However, this testing has been met with criticism.

Some find the surveillance testing to be excessive, and an unnecessary invasion of privacy. Is it fair to subject students to testing every week?

While it may not be enjoyable or convenient, surveillance testing is necessary in order to protect the student body. This is simply the price we must pay in order to continue attending in-person classes.

Moreover, UNCW should require that faculty and staff be tested at the same rate as students. If students attending in-person classes have to get tested weekly, faculty and staff should be held to the same requirement. Not only is it unfair for faculty and staff to be exempt from mandatory testing, but it is also irresponsible and dangerous.

Surveillance testing not only helps reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but it also helps identify asymptomatic individuals. This identification, followed by an appropriate quarantine period, has proven to be effective.

Duke University was one of the first campuses to implement the COVID-19 virus surveillance testing during the fall semester last year. Duke administered the RT-PCR test, which detects the genetic makeup of the virus. These tests are considered “the gold standard” of the COVID-19 virus testing since they can detect the virus’s presence early, even in those without symptoms. However, RT-PCR tests take two to three days for results to be ready. This makes them less desirable in settings where a quick turnaround is needed.

Within a ten-week period, the university conducted 68,913 tests on 10,265 students. 84 students tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. The data they collected from these tests found that 51% of the individuals who tested positive were asymptomatic. This is a startling statistic considering the impact the COVID-19 virus has had globally. Imagine all the lives that could have been saved if surveillance testing was more widespread. The total death toll would be a fraction of the current number.

Over half of the Duke students who tested positive were asymptomatic. This fact alone should be convincing enough thatt surveillance testing is necessary. Without the testing procedures in place, those asymptomatic students would have continued living their normal lives, spreading the coronavirus unknowingly. The would have come in contact with peers, professors, family and community members if it weren’t for the surveillance testing. Imagine the damage that would have done to the student body and surrounding Durham community.

UNCW has taken a different approach to their surveillance testing. The university has chosen to administer rapid antigen tests to students. Rapid antigen tests detect pieces of protein from the virus, rather than the genetic makeup. These tests are desirable due to their short turnaround time. In fact, most rapid antigen test results are ready within 15 minutes. However, they are less accurate in detecting the COVID-19 virus in asymptomatic individuals. These tests are best used to test individuals who are already experiencing symptoms of the COVID-19 virus. While rapid antigen tests may be less accurate than the RT-PCR tests, they are better than not testing at all. At least the rapid antigen tests will be catching positive, symptomatic COVID-19 virus cases.

Regardless of what test is administered, having routine testing not only helps control the spread of the pandemic, but also acts as a data source. Scientists, local and global health officials can then use this data to take appropriate action. For instance, if the data is showing an influx in positive COVID-19 virus cases, a university, town or state may need to go into lockdown. Data collected from a university setting can often predict the impact it may have on the wider region.

Let’s consider UNCW as an example. If the university notices a large rise in cases one week, Wilmington can predict higher cases city-wide. By analyzing this data, the city can take proper action like enacting different regulations such as a curfew or reducing the capacity of gatherings. Data gathered from these tests are invaluable during this pandemic.

In conclusion, the COVID-19 virus surveillance testing is a necessary and appropriate measure that UNCW is taking. We all must do things we don’t want to do. In these unprecedented times, we must experience the inconvenience of surveillance testing for the safety and health of our neighbors, family members, peers and global communities.