Detected cases from Whitman’s COVID-19 screening left students “shocked and confused”

Lily Yost, News Writer

Within the first week of school, seven students were under the impression that they had COVID-19. They moved into isolation housing, and in under three days four of them ended up leaving with a negative test.

To clear up the confusion about the status of COVID-19 on campus, Peter Harvey, Chair of the Coronavirus Task Force, discussed the updated protocol in an email to The Wire.

According to Harvey, students detected at the screening phase will isolate themselves in on-campus housing. From here, asymptomatic students will retest with a rapid antigen test. If the rapid test is positive, students will remain in isolation. A rapid negative test suggests that the student is not currently shedding the virus and will be retested with the slightly more accurate PCR test, ruling out the possibility of a false positive. If the result is negative, the student will remain in isolation but can choose to attend class with an N95 mask. In either situation, asymptomatic students will take daily rapid antigen tests for 10 days following the positive test result. 

Frances Lenz, a first-year student, received a false “detected” result from Meenta, the company used by Whitman to appraise the lab. Three other students also experienced this anomaly. 

Lenz received a negative test result two days prior to Whitman’s Phase I testing, and said she felt “shocked and confused” by her result. 

The result “didn’t give any instruction of who to contact or what to do about it,” Lenz said. “What on earth am I supposed to do?” 

Lenz was disappointed with Whitman’s initial response, describing it as “very chaotic.” 

“[It was] a let down seeing that they didn’t really know how to handle the situation and it took them a good three days to get a better protocol set up,” Lenz said.

Lenz isolated during orientation week, a critical time for first-year students to get acclimated with Whitman. She wasn’t allowed to attend the 2021 Fall Activity Fair or the Greek Life Tour. Lenz worried she would miss out on chances to meet her new classmates, only to return after the formation of friend groups.

“I feel like I am still trying to figure out things that people learned…like [at] the club fair,” Lenz said.

Whitman uses a company called Meenta to organize the COVID-19 screening on campus. Gabor Bethlendy, the CEO of Meenta, was also surprised by the false detected results. “It immediately raised alarm bells,” he said.

Gabor stressed the importance of technical terms in his field. It’s common for people to confuse “testing” with “screening,” he said. Gabor explained how Whitman never actually tested students but screened them using a pooling method.

“You cannot take a not detected surveillance pool and get on an airplane and say ‘Hey! I’m not detected!’ That doesn’t work. You cannot use it to travel. But it has been approved for these surveillance setting[s] for a large populous like in schools and [for] employers through the EUA [Emergency Use Authorization].”

It can’t indicate whether a specific individual has tested negative, only that a group of individuals have tested negative. It’s an efficient and cheap way to rule out positive cases, which is why Whitman selected this method.

Pooling means the lab collects saliva samples and organizes them into sub-groups. These sub-groups are PCR tested to check for DNA matching with the coronavirus genome. Without any matches, the pool is labeled “undetected.” 

If there are viral particles, then the lab creates more sub-groups until the infected sample is traced to an individual. This individual would then receive a “detected” result. Because multiple people are tested in a pool, an individual cannot be medically diagnosed with COVID-19. 

Gabor called the four false detected results “a really strange statistical phenomenon” and said the results “just looked wrong.” 

Unsure of the issue, Meenta decided to air on the side of caution and report it as detected results. And thus, panic spread among students, parents, staff and faculty. 

Despite this panic, as Gabor said, a false positive is “a thousand times better than a false negative.” He stands by Meenta’s decision to report the results as detected. The risk is too great. 

For updates on COVID-19 on campus, visit Whitman’s COVID-19 Dashboard