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After two weeks of Covid-19 testing, students are still left with questions

By Sean Leonard
Staff Writer

During the first week of classes, a major snowstorm caused major delays in the College’s rapid Covid-19 testing center, resulting in 29 new positive cases by Feb. 5. The center in the Decker Social Space has now been up and running for over two weeks and is expected to test about 500 to 625 people each day — about 3500 tests per week, according to Chief Operating Officer and Senior Vice President of Strategy and Innovation of Bergen New Bridge Medical Center Aaron F. Hajart.

Despite the large volume, students are still experiencing delays and difficulties, especially on Wednesdays when more students do not have classes.

Siddharth Gupta is a freshman biology major in the 7-year accelerated medical program, living in Decker Hall this semester who believes the College’s communication on testing has been clear.

“TCNJ was very clear about where and how to get tested on campus,” Gupta said. “But then obviously, I don’t know if that’s translated to on-campus experience.”

The following questions can help answer some of the difficulties and confusion students are still experiencing with the new testing procedures:

What is happening with the long lines and appointments?

In a Feb. 11 email, the College’s Covid-19 testing coordinator Shari Blumenthal addressed the students who were notified that their appointments were canceled. Blumenthal said students should ignore those emails, except during school-wide closures like snowstorms.

To avoid the long lines students have experienced, Blumenthal said you should get in line no earlier than 5 minutes before your appointment time. 

Gupta said he noticed this issue when he arrived at his Feb. 10 appointment at 9 a.m,  He said students beside him were already there waiting for their 10:30 a.m. appointments, and the line was nearly backed up to the entrance of parking lot 13. 

Gupta has been tested three times already, including on Feb. 3, when nearly 1000 students were tested according to Hajart. Gupta said he waited about 40 minutes for both his Feb. 3 and Feb. 10 appointments, which he scheduled for the earliest available times.

“It was surprisingly long considering I booked the earliest time,” Gupta said. “It felt a bit confusing to me how they had so many people signed up for the same slot when I was under the impression that sign ups were meant to be exclusive, so that small groups would be coming at a time.” 

Gupta also said he was concerned about the enforcement of social distancing while waiting for so long next to others.

“It’s a bit concerning at times because we’re here to get tested and the volume is so large that if someone here were to have it and I tested negative today, there’s a good chance that it could be transmitted with the capacity that they have here,” Gupta said.

To decrease the wait times, the testing center will now be open until 6 pm on Tuesdays, instead of 4, according to Blumenthal’s email.

Students at the College are expected to get tested once a week for the duration of the semester in the Decker Social Space (Sean Leonard / Staff Writer).

Both Hajart and Deborah Visconi, President and CEO of Bergen New Bridge Medical Center, said the Microsoft Bookings appointment slots should disappear when enough students select them. However, that function has not been working at the College.

“We are looking at a different scheduling system, something that’s a little more robust for our testing program because [Microsoft] Bookings works, but it’s pretty rudimentary,” Visconi said.

Are walk-ins allowed?

Hajart said that if the site is not busy, they will do their best to get students tested, regardless of appointment. However, he said scheduling an appointment is highly preferred, and it is possible to be told to come back if you do not have an appointment. Hajart said the testing site has yet to turn anyone around for this reason, but the majority of tests being done are via appointment.

Why aren’t students getting their rapid-test results on the same day?

Gupta said setting up the online portal was easy, but he signed up for his appointment using a personal email, which delayed his first test result. Hajart said students should use their college email because it is used to properly identify students.

“Ever since then, on the Wednesday’s I’ve gone, my results have been returned pretty promptly. I’d say it’s been a matter of a few hours, which is more than fast enough,” Gupta said. “The return of the results has been far more pleasant than waiting to get tested.”

Hajart also said that the first time getting results is usually the longest, and results from now on should be returned in a matter of hours. In fact, a sample can be read in as little as 10 minutes before it is processed and reported to the student. 

However, students have on-site options if they are still experiencing difficulties with results.

“We can also print results for everybody in house here. So if they can’t log in they can’t see the result, they could come up here to find Kyle [Hioki] and the result printed. Then we’ll complete some form for them, and we’ll have our IT department reach out to them to finalize and correct their portal,” Hajart said.

Hioki is a graduate student in the College’s Department of Public Health and a manager at the testing center.

According to Hajart, samples can be read in just 10 minutes before being processed and reported to a student (Sean Leonard / Staff Writer).

Should symptomatic students be visiting the testing center in the Decker Social Space?

According to the Spring Flex site, anyone experiencing possible Covid-19 symptoms should not be in contact with others before receiving guidance from Student Health Services. Also, correctly completing the daily self-checkup on the College’s Roar app prevents any symptomatic student from entering any building on campus.

However, symptomatic students have apparently been receiving testing at the Decker Social Space. Hajart said the center is mostly asymptomatic, but they are considering adding a “hot hour” where only symptomatic students are welcome at specific times throughout the week. Currently, he said symptomatic students are coming through a side door to get tested away from the main line. 

Visconi said the main idea of antigen testing is to track and isolate asymptomatic spread.

“It is used for identifying people that may not even know they’re infected, that’s why we call it surveillance testing. We do that for our employees too. We test them every week to make sure that you’re not carrying it pre-infection,” Visconi said.

Will I need to continue being tested after I recover from Covid-19?

Bergen New Bridge Medical Center sent an original email on Jan. 20 telling students to report their positive Covid-19 results to OWL and email health@tcnj.edu, only if the result was received within the last 90 days. After Student Health Services is aware of your recent infection, they will determine if you qualify for an exemption from weekly Covid-19 testing.

Visconi said she advocates for testing as often as possible, but some non-infectious viral particles can give a positive result after the infection.

“Sometimes the problem is that you may not get a negative test in those two weeks, and so you might have to go and get tested a couple of times before you get a negative test,” Visconi said.

Am I safe to socialize after a negative test result?

A negative test result is helpful for screening, but it is certainly not a guarantee for safety when socializing with large groups of people. 

“I think it’s a common misconception to say, ‘well, I’m negative. I’m fine,’” said Hajart. He also said it is important for people to still be cautious and thoughtful after testing negative, since a person may test negative right before the viral levels are detectable.

“You may not feel any different, particularly if you’re asymptomatic,” Hajart said. “That’s really where I think the testing becomes critical. The people walking around spreading the virus are doing so completely unaware that they’re even positive.”

Hajart said to avoid this, students should remain thoughtful, wear their masks and be cognizant of spacing and distancing.

“The key here is just to be smart. If you think it doesn’t sound like a good idea to go out without your mask and be crazy, you’re probably right. So, just spend some time and effort thinking about others,” Hajart said.

What kind of tests is TCNJ using and are they reliable?

Bergen New Bridge uses the Sofia 2 Flu + SARS Antigen Fluorescent Immunoassay. This test actually detects protein from influenza A, B and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. These antigen tests are not FDA-approved. However, the FDA issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for their widespread use for the duration of the pandemic. 

The EUA for the Sofia 2 was issued in May 2020, making it the first antigen test to be authorized for diagnosing Covid-19. EUAs like this one permit the FDA commissioner to allow unapproved medical devices to be used to “diagnose, treat, or prevent serious or life-threatening diseases or conditions caused by CBRN threat agents when there are no adequate, approved and available alternatives,” according to section 564 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. CBRN includes chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agents.

The rapid tests are not 100 % accurate at detecting infection, but Hajart said the Sofia test is the best commercially available product and the best choice for a screening program at a large institution like the College.

“It’s a lot less expensive to do an antigen test. There’s no equipment to buy, the personnel to run a test is a lot less, and the main thing is just turnaround time,” Hajart said.

Visconi also said that antigen testing has come a long way since the start of the pandemic and the quick results are beneficial for a college setting. However, sometimes a molecular test like a PCR test, which detects viral genetic material, is used for confirmation.

“Sometimes people will get a positive antigen, and we’ll do a PCR to just validate that. Or sometimes people get a negative antigen because we may have missed that window of infection, but they have symptoms,” said Visconi.

Despite these early uncertainties and bumps in the testing process on campus, hopefully the upcoming months bring a greater sense of normalcy and optimism as the heart of the semester approaches.

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