In search of better testing, Whitman faces decision on spring return

Lena Friedman, Staff Reporter

The Whitman Coronavirus Task Force announced its plans to decide between November and December whether spring semester classes will be held mostly in-person for all students. According to Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey, this decision largely depends on access to testing kits.

Harvey, who currently chairs the task force, says the college hopes to implement biweekly antigen testing for all students and employees who return to campus. An antigen test is a recently authorized rapid point-of-care test for COVID-19.  

“That, we think, is the way to provide the safest environment but we haven’t gotten confirmation we can get those tests yet,” Harvey said. “We’re in contact with Abbott [Laboratories] and there’s another lab that’s in the process of getting approval but everybody, of course, wants them.”

The federal government purchased the first 150 million Abbott antigen tests — which was most of Abbott’s production for the rest of the year. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says the tests will go to “K-12 teachers and students, higher education, critical infrastructure, first responders and other priorities as governors deem fit.” Whether this includes private colleges and universities remains unclear. 

“We’re pursuing three or four different companies and different strategies to try and get the kind of testing we feel we need for next semester,” Harvey said.

President Kathy Murray announced that if classes cannot be held primarily in-person for all students, then the college is considering a hybrid model in which a smaller group of students could live on campus and take in-person classes.

“In this model, we would bring back some students to live and study in academic pods,” Murray wrote in a school-wide email sent out on Oct. 9. “If circumstances are such that it would be unsafe to bring back all students, this setup would allow us to bring students back at a lower density, therefore lowering the risk of spreading COVID-19. Students would live together and take most classes together in groups of about 15 with additional classes attended remotely. Students who are interested would be chosen by lottery. We’ll have more information about this model as well as lottery sign-up instructions in the coming days.”

Whitman’s task force has other considerations to take into account when planning for the spring semester, such as what infection rates will look like as the flu season approaches in Walla Walla and in other other regions where students hail from, and how well-equipped the college and Walla Walla healthcare system are to trace and treat infections.

No matter what happens, Harvey says that students and faculty will have the option to continue taking and teaching their courses online.

Faculty may not be comfortable teaching in person and students may not be comfortable coming back in person,” he said. “So, we want to find a way to give them the choice of that and to do as much in-person [instruction] as we can.” 

In July, Whitman announced that classes would be held primarily online for the fall and subsequently issued one round of free and required COVID-19 PCR testing in August for students and employees who intended to be on campus for the fall. The Wire reported that a total of 978 people were tested. 

PCR remains the most accurate COVID-19 diagnostic test for now, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. These tests have a high sensitivity rate (a low rate of false negatives), but are more expensive than antigen tests and are generally sent out to a lab, which can take multiple days to yield results. Antigen tests have a higher rate of false negatives but are less expensive and can yield results in 15 minutes.

The sensitivity of rapid antigen tests is generally lower than RT-PCR,” the CDC says. “The first antigen tests to have received FDA EUAs [Emergency Use Authorizations] demonstrate sensitivity ranging from 84.0%-97.6% compared to RT-PCR.”  

Whitman’s PCR testing in August cost about $75,000, Harvey said. Antigen testing is much more cost effective at $5 a piece. As such, they are useful for controlling outbreaks in congregated living situations. 

Our goal was to do [testing] twice a week fall semester, but we couldn’t afford $75,000 twice a week with what was available then,” Harvey said.

Whitman’s task force is also thinking about plans to quarantine contacts and isolate students who test positive for COVID-19 if they are able to return to campus.

“One of the issues we’re considering is do we allow rooms to have doubles like we historically have, and if we do that, then we could have North Hall fully available with eighty plus beds for isolation space,” Harvey said. “Or, do we think it’s better to spread students out as much as possible in singles to limit the infection between each other, in which case we’d have to use North Hall as singles and have less isolation space.”

As of Oct. 12, Walla Walla County reports 962 confirmed cases since the start of the virus outbreak. There have only been two positive cases in the Whitman community reported so far. Although, the college has not offered testing on a regular basis. 

“At a minimum, [we] want to bring at least some people back, and I’d probably say I believe we can do that unless there’s such a bad second wave hitting everybody that it just doesn’t make sense,” Harvey said. “But if we’re in similar or even a little worse conditions, I think we can do that safely.”