COVID-19 Testing Updates

September 18, 2020

Dear UNL students, faculty and staff:

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have continuously worked to effectively plan for, react to and mitigate the impacts to our campus. As we learn more, we have opportunities to enhance our efforts. In that spirit, I wanted to let you know about expanded COVID-19 diagnostic testing we will be conducting on our UNL campus. 

Before getting into the details of this expanded testing, I want to outline in a general way why UNL has taken the testing approach it has. Every university has had to determine how to test and what actionable information would be gained. There are two basic purposes of testing: 1) diagnostic testing, which is the most common and provides an individual with a positive or negative test result and allows for contact tracing, and 2) surveillance testing, which tests large numbers of people and can provide trend or hotspot data, but does not allow for an individual diagnosis and thus no contact tracing. Of the approaches for diagnostic testing, the most accurate is “PCR” testing utilizing a nasal swab. 

There has been some discussion on the possibilities for saliva-based testing. It’s important to note that the vast majority of universities utilizing saliva-based testing are using the results for surveillance purposes only. Doing so for diagnostic purposes requires a medically certified lab and a medical organization to conduct the testing and receive the results. While it does provide faster results, it can be incredibly expensive and requires significant testing capacity from a medical partner. Universities employing this approach are generally spending tens of millions of dollars to do so.

Diagnostic antigen testing, which is being required for our football student-athletes by the Big Ten and paid for by the Big Ten, provides quicker results and can be a good approach for “point of care” repeated testing of a specific population in at-risk situations such as contact sports. But it can be less accurate, which is why the Big Ten testing protocols require any positive test result to be confirmed with a PCR diagnostic test.

Based on the medical advice from UNMC and the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department (LLCHD), we took the initial approach of providing free PCR diagnostic testing through a partnership with TestNebraska for those in our UNL community who are symptomatic. Again, based on that medical advice, we decided not to require all students to get a diagnostic test prior to arrival on campus. While that approach may have given us a point-in-time count of positive cases, the status of anyone testing negative could easily change quickly. We’ve seen many universities who took this approach having large spikes in cases after the first two weeks because of a false confidence from an initial negative test. 

Asking anyone in our UNL community who has symptoms of COVID-19 to be tested not only provides the individual with a positive or negative result so they can isolate, the resulting contract tracing provides valuable information for our university to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on our campus. Contract tracing by both LLCHD and UNL allows those who have been in close contact with someone who tests positive to quarantine and help prevent the spread of the disease, and allows us to provide campus resources and support to those needing to quarantine. On the recommendation of LLCHD, several residential units on campus have quarantined due to small clusters, also helping to mitigate the spread. Based on our testing and contract tracing, LLCHD has not seen any evidence of classroom-based transmission on our campus. Nor have we seen large outbreaks linked to a single residential unit, event or academic building.

In an effort to even better mitigate any spread of COVID-19 on campus, we are expanding the availability of our PCR diagnostic testing and asking more people to be tested.

Expanded TestNebraska On-Campus Testing
Starting this weekend, we will be expanding the access to the free diagnostic testing available on campus at our TestNebraska site, in the parking garage at 17th and R streets. This site will increase capacity within its operating hours and add Sunday afternoon testing. Testing appointments can be made through our UNL COVID-19 website. The hours for the TestNebraska facility will be:

            Monday-Friday            3:00-6:00
            Sunday                         1:00-4:00

This expanded capacity and days will allow us to test more individuals, and also serve our student populations who have regular testing required for their curricular and employment purposes – such as student teachers and workers in Lancaster County childcare facilities.

The University Health Center is also able to provide testing for UNL students, faculty and staff, Monday through Saturday. Testing at the health center is based on the outcome of a telehealth consultation and requires insurance coverage.  To request a telehealth appointment for testing, call 402-472-5000.

Enhanced Testing for those in Quarantine
All students living in a campus residential facility that has been placed under quarantine by the LLCHD, or that voluntarily self-quarantined, will be asked to be tested. Those students who normally reside in quarantined facilities and left campus to quarantine will be strongly encouraged to obtain a negative test prior to returning to campus.

Those identified as close contacts of an individual who tested positive are strongly encouraged to get tested at least 5 days into their 14-day quarantine period, as this is the time the virus typically begins to become detectable by a test. However, a negative test does not cut short the need for a full 14-day quarantine to ensure symptoms do not develop.

Randomized Mitigation Testing for All Students, Faculty and Staff
Starting next week, we will also be instituting randomized diagnostic testing for our UNL campus community. If you have been selected for a randomized test, you will receive an email asking you to be tested and providing instructions for on-campus testing opportunities, including directions on where to be tested.

Finally, we want to clarify aspects of our isolation and quarantine policies.  Any student living in a residential unit that undergoes a quarantine is asked to remain in that facility, and not return to their permanent residence. We have worked with LLCHD on strong quarantine protocols to help ensure the safety of the students in those units. Remaining on campus is a safer option for the students, and the greater community, than traveling to other locations. 

For students who need isolation housing, the university is providing that at no additional cost.  Students who need help finding a place to stay to follow all isolation guidance can contact Student Advocacy and Support and the dedicated isolation number, 402-472-3204. Residence hall students should contact Residence Life at 402-472-1717 to arrange for isolation housing.

Let us always remember that the best mitigation strategy is prevention – wearing face masks, practicing social distancing, washing hands, using hand sanitizer, and other good hygiene.

As medical experts continually learn more about how to combat and mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on communities, our ability to evolve our response will also expand. Our UNL leaders continuously look at how we may be able to improve based on our guiding mission of the safety of our community and the ability to safely educate our students, conduct research and creative activity, and engage with our communities.

Ronnie D. Green, Ph.D.