Initial COVID testing shows promising results, minor issues

Cabot%2C+once+a+facility+where+varsity%2C+club+and+intramural+sports+could+occur%2C+has+been+the+home+of+a+massive+testing+operation+this+semester.+

Samantha Barry

Cabot, once a facility where varsity, club and intramural sports could occur, has been the home of a massive testing operation this semester.

Seamus McAvoy, news staff

At first glance, the total transformation of the Cabot Physical Education Center into a state-of-the-art testing site is daunting. Inside, past a gauntlet of assistants, 24 testing stations populate the cavernous arena. Large, vibrant portraits of students, faculty and first responders (all in masks) hang from the rafters like championship banners, and a pair of rectangular awnings against the back wall emphasize the Northeastern reopening mantra: “Protect the Pack.” Though student reaction to reopening has been mixed, it’s hard to argue with the numbers a little over two weeks after students returned to campus. 

While COVID-19 outbreaks continue to pop up at similar sized schools across the country, Northeastern avoided a similar fate so far, thanks in part to the rigorous testing regimen that is a lynchpin of the university’s ambitious reopening plan. Northeastern has administered over 142,376 tests since beginning testing on Aug. 17 and conducted an average of 5,522 tests per day since Sept. 1 — exceeding the university’s initial aim of 5,000 per day — including over 6,000 tests conducted on eight days, according to university data. Test processing is split between the Northeastern Life Sciences Testing Center in Burlington, and the Broad Institute

“I’m very thankful that [Northeastern] has invested this much money into having an actual state-of-the-art testing center to keep everyone safe,” said Patrick Uglum, a first-year engineering and architectural studies major. 

The early results have been promising. Students account for 64 of the 71 positive tests, and a total of 35 on- and off-campus students have recovered. With a 7-day average positivity rate of 0.05 percent, the pie chart found on the university’s testing dashboard looks like nothing more than a blue circle. 

Northeastern’s testing protocols are ambitious not just for the volume, but also for the frequency. On Sept. 8, an email from Senior Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Madeleine Estabrook clarified that full-time undergraduate students, including those on co-op or living in off-campus residences close to campus, would have to undergo testing every three days — even if they are opting to take all classes remotely. 

This has caused frustration for some students, who say their lack of interaction with other Northeastern community members eliminates the need for rigorous testing. The split in opinion looks to be largely between on- and off-campus students, since those on campus have greater accessibility to the testing facilities. 

Sara Khalil, a first-year graduate student in the health informatics program, said she has to wait an average of 20 minutes in a line that often stretches outside the front door of Cabot back to the Cy Young statue, or further. That’s on top of a 15-minute commute from her off-campus residence, and though she’s generally pleased with how testing has gone, she said it can be a challenge fitting the tests every three days into her busy schedule. 

“I try to schedule the tests so that I’m already on campus so it’s not that much of a commitment, it’s about planning ahead of time,” Khalil said. “But it is an inconvenience.”

Even for Yuval Timan, a fifth-year math major who is taking all of his classes remotely and only comes to campus once or twice a week for testing, it can be a challenge finding the time to get tested. 

“Especially during the week when classes are going on, it’s definitely a little hard, because the wait times do get pretty long,” Timan said. He added that the longest so far was about 15 minutes.

But Timan acknowledged that the frequency of testing for students regularly involved in and around campus adds to the level of safety.

“I think every three days is good for everyone that’s on campus, but I don’t know how I feel about people that are off campus getting tested so frequently,” Timan said. “But the more the merrier.” 

For first-year students who spoke with The News, the guarantee that anyone regularly coming to campus is frequently tested outweighs the inconvenience. They share how it has helped mitigate the stress that comes along with starting college amidst a global pandemic. 

Kaman Lung, a first-year architecture major, said that finding the time to get tested hasn’t been very difficult. As she lives on campus, she simply finds a convenient time slot after classes, and hasn’t run into some of the extreme wait times as other students.

“[Testing] makes me feel a lot safer on campus, because everyone is getting tested pretty frequently, and the process is pretty easy,” Lung said. 

Some first-years also appreciate the extensiveness of Northeastern’s safety measures to make on-campus learning feasible.

“I’m grateful I can even be on campus,” said Alex Norce, a first-year behavioral neuroscience major. “I feel a lot safer knowing the people around me have been tested so many times and have gone through all of these steps to make sure that they’re being safe.”

It has taken some time for the testing process at Cabot to become more of a well-oiled machine. The announcement that Northeastern would be partnering with the Broad Institute came via email on Sept. 1, resulting in confusion when students learned that results from the Broad Institute would only be accessible through a separate portal

Though positive about testing overall, Norce expressed frustration when she was notified that her results were waiting for her through one of the portals, but there wasn’t a link to the results in the email. Max Magee, a third-year mechanical engineering major, wasn’t even aware of the second portal at the time of speaking to The News, which he guesses is the reason why he never saw the results of his previous test. 

“I think there’s definitely room for improvement [in communication], most of how I’ve figured it out is by talking to people that have done it before,” Magee said. 

Clerical errors have also caused issues for some students. Earlier this month, Jordan Kang, a fourth-year business administration major with concentrations in marketing and entrepreneurship, had just taken his second test in the three-negatives-in-five-days sequence to return to classes in person, when he received an erroneous email saying that he had missed one of the required tests. He was told he’d have to redo the cycle, meaning there was a possibility he’d miss the beginning of classes. 

Kang then reached out to Northeastern’s COVID-19 FAQ helpline — he said the dedicated email address was not valid at the time — where he was told the university was aware of the issue.

“[They] made it clear that it was not a singular issue, it was something a lot of people were dealing with,” Kang said.

A second email came the next day, explaining that the university made an error causing a handful of students never to have had their QR code on their Daily Wellness Checks scanned. The tests were still processed, but the school had no immediate way of knowing whether or not these students showed up for their test, hence the initial email. 

“I feel like communication has not been great from Northeastern,” Kang said. “It’s been extremely vague, and on top of how confusing scheduling classes is normally, this is just adding to the headache.” 

Fortunately for Kang, the logistical error was corrected by the weekend, and he was able to proceed with classes as he would have normally. 

Even with minor logistics issues, the university has cleared the crucial two-week hurdle without any major outbreaks or significant testing blunders, a feat many colleges haven’t been able to claim.