Virginia Tech town hall addresses testing, fall semester plans
By Travis Williams
The mandatory COVID-19 testing for on-campus residents was one of several topics related to the university’s updated plan for testing, tracing, and case management discussed during a virtual town hall with Virginia Tech leaders on July 31. Details regarding the testing during the move-in period, testing for off-campus residents, and the handling of results were addressed, as well as proactive safety measures students can take long prior to returning to campus.
“Though the focus of today’s town hall is on testing, contact tracing, and our case-management plan, this is not our first line of defense,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “Our first line of defense is embodied in our community wellness agreement, which is the product of nearly every major health organization in the New River Valley and some in Roanoke.”
The Community Wellness Commitment consists of 10 tenets – including face coverings, good hygiene, and physical distancing – that aim to support one another and to contain and defeat the virus. Though focused on the Blacksburg campus, the tenets should be applied to Virginia Tech’s entire footprint across the commonwealth.
“These tenets do not change when you walk across Main Street, they apply to every aspect of our lives on campus, and in our community 24 hours a day,” Sands said. “If we all did these, all of the time, we would knock SARS-CoV-2 to the ground.”
Sands emphasized that for all residents, both on and off campus, their commitment to the health and safety of the university and surrounding communities begins prior to traveling to the area with a 14-day self-quarantine. During that period, students should have close contact only with immediately family members or people in their pods, and wear face coverings and maintain at least a 6-foot distance when around others. Sands said those efforts will greatly limit the number of positive tests when students return.
While some might be skeptical of the age group’s commitment to these practices, Professor Laura Hungerford encouraged people to more closely examine the efforts of many Virginia Tech students. For example, many are already helping with contact tracings; creating innovative, safe activities; and volunteering in their home communities.
“We’ve talked about the experience might be a little bit different on campus, but I think the part of the experience that isn’t different is the Ut Prosim part,” said Hungerford, who is also head of the Department of Population Health Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. “When you think about questions about our students and what might happen because of COVID, you need to look as see what’s already happening. They’re doing amazing things and they’re a great example for the rest of us.”
Other questions answered during the virtual event:
How will on-campus residents be tested?
Testing for on-campus students will occur during Aug. 14-23. Students will be assigned a 30-minute block, during which they alone will report to a designated testing site. Face coverings will be required at the test site.
Testing will be facilitated by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC testing team led by by Carla Finkielstein. It will include the use of a mid-nasal swab test, which is more comfortable and provides the same results, according to Vice President of Health Sciences and Technology Michael J. Friedlander.
There is an expected 24-48 hour window for results.
When will I find out about my testing block?
Housing assignments and testing information will be sent out to on-campus residents via the StarRez portal.
What about testing for off-campus residents?
Students living off campus who believe to have been exposed, have symptoms, or are traveling from a COVID-19 hot spot, should contact the Schiffert Health Center. They will complete a screening to determine if a test is needed and if so, it will be completed through the same team at VTC.
What should I do while I wait for my results?
Students are advised to act as though they have the virus, quarantining themselves as best possible, wearing a face covering, and maintaining physical distancing measures when around others.
What if I test positive?
If students self-quarantine prior to traveling to campus, very few are expected to test positive. On-campus residents who do, however, will be contacted to discuss further steps for their recovery process. Options for recovery may include going home or isolating on campus. Those isolating on campus will have access to dining services via contactless delivery.
Off-campus residents will work with the Virginia Department of Health to develop individual isolation options.
All students are encouraged to develop a plan in case of a positive test.
What happens if I refuse the test?
Aside from rare extenuating circumstances, on-campus residents must take the test. Those who refuse will have their housing contracts terminated.
What is a pod and why is it important?
A pod is a group of people who commitment to each other’s health and safety by limiting their close social interactions to people in the group. It’s basically like an episode of the television show, “Friends,” with no guest appearances. Both on and off campus students should create pods.
When considering the size of a pod, students, both on and off campus, should consider the number of people they can commit to, as well as the number needed to provide adequate social interaction. A good guideline might be between four and 14 people. Keep in mind, a critical component of successful pods will be an open and honest dialog about risks and if potential exposures occur.
Will I be contacted if someone in my pod tests positive?
Yes. The university and Virginia Department of Health will work together for rapid contact tracing of individual thought to have been exposed. This is one reason why transparency within pods is of vital importance.
If I test positive, will my information be made public?
No. Privacy laws prevent the identities of individuals being shared, even during contact tracing. Working with the Virginia Department of Health, the university is working to create a public facing dashboard of COVID-19-related information, but it will include no personal information.
How will regulations on and off campus be enforced?
Much like other issues at Virginia Tech, the Student Conduct process will be used in order to protect others as needed. Students are encouraged, however, to support one another with gentle reminders of the Wellness Commitment in the hope that is a rare occurrence.
Will we make it through all this?
“I am very confident we can do it. I know we can do it,” Sands said. “This community at Virginia Tech and the larger community around us is a special community. This is not our biggest test ever, but it’s a different kind of test, and we will pass it.”
More information on the university’s response to COVID-19 and its plans for the fall semester can be found at vt.edu/ready.