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Michigan urges colleges to give students weekly COVID tests

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Michigan's colleges and universities should give weekly COVID-19 tests to students even if they live off campus, state officials urged this week as a new strain of the coronavirus circulates and outbreaks have been traced to off-campus parties.

The new guidelines, issued Tuesday by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, are based on studies published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show the coronavirus is mostly transmitted outside the classroom even though social distancing and wearing a mask are also important.

Additionally, COVID-19 cases increased when students returned to campus in the fall and most were linked to social activities off campus. 

The University of Michigan requires weekly testing for undergraduate students living on campus or coming to campus for classes, work, research or to access any facilities.

The guidelines come on the heels of the discovery of the new, more contagious variant of COVID-19 arriving in the state and college students returning to classes for the second semester of the academic year. MDHHS identified the state's first case of the new variant, a fast-spreading strain first identified last month in Great Britain, on Saturday in an adult woman living in Washtenaw County, home to UM's Ann Arbor campus.

In October, Washtenaw County health officials issued a two-week stay-at-home order for UM students to curb growing COVID-19 cases linked partly to maskless social gatherings near campus. Meanwhile, health officials linked 180 coronavirus cases to one gathering at an East Lansing bar near Michigan State University.

“We know there have been outbreaks of COVID-19 on college campuses across the country, and it has an impact on disease spread beyond the campus community,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health for MDHHS.

“Colleges have stepped up throughout this pandemic to slow disease spread through testing and quarantine protocols," she said. "With the arrival of the new variant in Michigan and risk of virus spread both on- and off-campus, it is best practice to implement robust testing protocols in these settings. Colleges and universities have an important role to play in ending this pandemic.”

Health officials have begun to distribute the vaccine that became available in December but young people are not able to get it before others who are considered a higher priority, such as the elderly and health care workers.

For now, some colleges and universities require routine testing for students who live in residence halls and come to campus for classes, work or research. But the testing protocols do not always require testing for those who live off campus and have no reason to come to campus.

MSU, for instance, requires any student who lives on campus or plans to come to campus to participate in the Early Detection Program, known as the Spartan Spit test, said spokeswoman Emily Guerrant.

​​​Participants register and choose a day for weekly testing. After submitting a sample. students are notified that no further action is necessary, the test was inconclusive or the student is positive and needs to isolate and seek medical advice.

 "Right now, we have about 8,000 people in the mandatory testing, which is done once a week," Guerrant said. "Other students, and employees at MSU, can also volunteer to be a part of the program and are tested once a week."

MSU recommends but does not require testing for students who live off campus and don't have a reason to come to campus, she added. 

"We have encouraged them to be a part of the Early Detection Program," Guerrant said, "and have worked with groups like our fraternity council, off-campus landlords and housing units and student clubs and organizations to encourage more participation in the program."

UM also requires weekly testing for undergraduate students living on campus or coming to campus for classes, work, research or to access any facilities, said university spokesman Rick Fitzgerald. 

"Weekly testing is available to all students (undergraduate and graduate) as well as faculty and staff coming to campus for any reason," he said.

UM has recommended that all students get tested regularly if they live in the Ann Arbor area, even if their classes are remote.

"These students will be tested through the Community Sampling and Tracking Program; same way as the students for which testing is mandatory," Fitzgerald said. "There is no cost for the testing."

Central Michigan University tests student-athletes several times a week per guidelines from the state health department and the Mid-American Conference, said spokeswoman Heather Smith. 

"We offer voluntary testing through our health clinic to any on- or off-campus student who wants to be tested," Smith said. "In addition, many students take advantage of our weekly surveillance testing."

"We are reviewing the recommended strategies, and we are looking at the strategies we have in place to ensure our practices continue to keep our community safe," Smith said.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @kimberkoz