The University of Wisconsin began administering saliva-based rapid tests on campus earlier this month, but many students have struggled to adjust to the new testing method.
UW switched to saliva-based COVID-19 tests this semester to increase testing capacity. Developed by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Shield T3 program adds an additional 70,000 saliva-based tests per week to the 12,000 nasal swab tests already provided on campus, according to the UW COVID-19 Response website.
Undergraduates living in Madison, including those living off-campus, must now test twice a week at one of the 14 testing locations on campus using the saliva-based method, according to the UW COVID-19 Response website. As the university prepares for the start of its spring semester, students returning to Madison have voiced concerns about this new process.
Both those taking and administering the tests have experienced problems with rejected tests. The saliva-based tests can be rejected for a number of reasons — too little or too much saliva (not falling within the necessary 1.0-1.5 mL range), discoloration, and residue found in the submitted sample, according to the UW COVID-19 testing tips webpage.
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UW senior Krysta Stroncek is one of approximately 300 testing staff members working at UW’s various testing sites. Stroncek said for the first week of testing, around 20% of tests she saw in her shifts got rejected, irritating many test-takers.
“I think the rejection rate is definitely a very frustrating issue,” Stroncek said. “I do get a lot of very frustrated people, and it is hard.”
Students who want to access campus buildings are required to show proof of a recent negative test on the new Safer Badgers app, according to the UW COVID-19 Response website. Those with an approved “Badger Badge” status are allowed to enter and use UW facilities. Enforcement of the Badger Badges will begin Feb. 8.
Receiving a rejected test result is something UW junior Zachary Ausavich said concerns him greatly in regard to his academics.
“It’s definitely going to be difficult since I have in-person labs,” Ausavich said. “It’s going to be frustrating if I get a rejected test … and then have to miss a class that I pay for.”
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Safety is another concern for students, with many worried about unmasking for long periods of time alongside other unmasked test-takers.
UW senior Matt Ingebritson said this aspect of the saliva-based tests is not ideal.
“Taking off your mask in a room full of other people during a pandemic is not exactly the best feeling in the world,” Ingebritson said.
Testing sites have testers stand at least six feet apart while spitting, and they encourage testers to re-mask while pooling their drool to minimize time without masks.
Many students also worry about finding time in their busy school and work schedules to get tested. From waiting in lines to producing an acceptable saliva sample, many have voiced concerns about the time it takes to get in and out of a testing site. Stroncek said the saliva-based tests are expected to take longer than nasal ones.
“The saliva [tests] definitely can take a lot longer depending on the person, how hydrated they are and how fast they can produce enough spit,” Stroncek said.
Looking to address this concern, UW announced the decision to only offer drop-in testing going forward in an email to students on Friday. Beginning Jan. 24, students will use their Safer Badgers app to view wait times at each testing location, according to the email.
The email said this change will provide students and employees with “the flexibility to access testing on their schedule” as well as minimize wait times and delays. Up until Sunday, students used the app to schedule appointments at available testing locations.
UW also addressed students’ confusion and frustration by regularly sending out testing tips as well as creating a FAQ page. In addition, the university made an email and phone line available for people to contact with any questions and concerns.
Stroncek said she noticed test-takers following testing advice and becoming more comfortable with the process.
“Every day, the samples get better and better,” Stroncek said. “I think people are starting to get into the flow of it and really understand what they need to do to get a good sample.”
UW’s weekly announcement posts also look to provide help by answering the “top questions” submitted by test-takers throughout each week.
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During a media briefing on Thursday, University Health Services executive director Jake Baggott said communicating with students and faculty led to noticeable improvements in testing.
“As expected, we experienced a number of rejections early on as we’ve refined the process and people get accustomed to the testing protocol,” Baggott said. “But with the additional communications that we’ve sent out for folks to successfully navigate that, we’ve seen those numbers drop considerably.”
The university anticipated frustrations brought about by testing changes, according to the most recent weekly update post for faculty and staff.
With UW continuing to address students’ questions and concerns about the new tests, Stroncek said she is optimistic about the testing process this spring.
“I completely understand why the University switched over, and I think it’s just going to take a while for people to adjust,” Stroncek said. “But, we’re starting to get through it.”