CDC changes stance on coronavirus testing for colleges

Dive Brief:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its coronavirus testing guidance for colleges and universities to suggest more screening could help stem the virus’s spread.
  • Earlier guidance advised institutions to test only people showing symptoms of COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, and those who may have been exposed to the virus, catching flak from some public health officials.
  • The update comes as new research from the CDC and other groups connects an uptick in coronavirus cases to college campuses reopening.

Dive Insight:

Guidance posted on the CDC’s website in June stated that testing may be needed for individuals with symptoms of COVID-19 as well as those who may have been exposed to the virus, even if they are not showing symptoms. But it stated that it did not recommend testing all students, faculty and staff upon their return to campus.

The updated guidance, posted on Sept. 30, states that testing people upon reentry, and regularly after that, “might prevent or reduce” transmission of the virus in light of the “frequent movement” of instructors, staff and students between the campus and surrounding area.

Additionally, the CDC explains in the update, testing a random sample of asymptomatic campus members “could increase the timeliness of outbreak detection and response” by catching cases that would have gone unnoticed otherwise.

Some experts disagreed with the CDC’s earlier guidance recommending against reentry testing, while others were concerned the accuracy of the tests couldn’t be counted on. At the time, the CDC said such an approach had “not been systematically studied.”

One recent study found that frequent testing, along with social distancing measures, can help colleges control outbreaks on campus. And many schools drawing attention for containing the virus are leaning heavily on testing. That’s not something all colleges have the resources to do, and some have been testing students and employees only when they present symptoms.

However, two recent studies have connected an uptick in coronavirus cases — among young adults and in areas near colleges  to college campus reopenings. The New York Times has linked more than 130,000 coronavirus cases to colleges as of Sept. 25.

The CDC notes that testing should be accompanied by virus-mitigation strategies such as social distancing, mask-wearing, enhanced cleaning and hand-washing.

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