Swabs, sewage and campus bubbles: Can COVID testing keep colleges open?

Wayne State University nursing student and volunteer, Tiffany Holmes, practices administering an Abbott COVID-19 rapid test on fellow volunteer and registered nurse Thomas Lin at the Wayne State University Campus Health Center in Detroit. The university is testing all students when they come to campus starting Monday. (Bridge photo by Elaine Cromie)

In West Michigan, Hope College will look for COVID-19 in wastewater. In the Upper Peninsula, Michigan Technological University will randomly test 600 students per week. 

Central Michigan University students are expected to self-report symptoms on an app. And in Detroit, Wayne State University is coupling random diagnostic testing with a search for virus antibodies.

As students head back to campus, Michigan’s colleges and universities are employing a dizzying variety of tools to catch and curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

Related stories:

How well these strategies will work is anyone’s guess, as officials at some schools acknowledge. One immunology expert told Bridge that some test efforts in place are unlikely to help, but will “make people feel better.”

James Baker, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, said phone apps that require students to self-report symptoms may reassure families and students, but have limited value.

And a diagnostic test — required of some students just before they arrive or once they are on campus — detects only whether the person is infected at the moment they take the test. 

“After the first house party during the weekend, it's going to be meaningless,” he said.

And nobody promised Michigan campuses would remain COVID-free.

“We know we will have more cases of COVID-19 as employees and students begin their return to campus this summer,” Dr. George Kikano, dean of medicine at Central Michigan University, acknowledged in a video to the Central community in June.

Michigan State University has already thrown in the towel, moving almost all undergraduate classes online last week and telling students who planned to live in dorms to stay home, despite spending months preparing what school officials said were stringent safety protocols.

MSU’s decision, along with fresh outbreaks at colleges around the country and new, much enhanced testing recommendations from federal officials, raise questions about the limits of planning and science to rein in a pandemic among socially-wired college students.

In the wake of MSU’s pivot to remote learning, several Michigan universities reaffirmed plans to bring students back to campus. Western Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University released statements assuring students they were still welcome to return. 

But the frequency of testing — and the tests themselves — vary by campus.

“What complicates the issue is that not only is the science about the disease developing, the modalities of testing are changing too,” said Laurie Lauzon Clabo, dean of the college of nursing at Wayne State University.


Wayne State is scheduled to start weeklong testing of incoming students Monday as they arrive on campus. Sections of campus housing are reserved for students who test positive for COVID-19, where they will quarantine for two weeks if they can’t do so from home, she said.

The university also will randomly test staff and students every three weeks. If the rate of positive test results climbs above 1 percent, the university will make testing more frequent, Lauzon Clabo said.

Additionally, the university is complementing the nasal swab diagnostic tests designed to catch current infections with blood draws to determine how many of those on campus carry antibodies to COVID-19, indicating they’ve had a past infection and possibly (but not certainly) have a resistance to the virus.

If a new saliva test, authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Aug. 15, becomes available — the university might turn to it later this year, Lauzon Clabo said.

Michigan Tech grad student Rashi Yadav works on a coronavirus test. The Upper Peninsula university is testing about 40 percent of students this week as they move back to the Houghton campus.  Michigan Tech courtesy photo)

“We're going to respond to the science as it emerges and to local data,” she said.

Searching through sewers 

At Hope College in Holland, a pump scoops up samples of wastewater every 20 minutes that is then collected and tested for genetic markers of COVID-19. The idea is not to test whether the school has COVID-19 cases — as with other schools, it inevitably will — but to gauge COVID-19 levels to help guide decisions, said Aaron Best, a professor of microbiology who is overseeing the testing.

If COVID-19 levels rise, the school may step up individual testing or reinforce lockdowns, he said.

The school also mailed students saliva tests they could take at home before they arrived on campus. Of about 4,000 tests, 38 people tested positive and were instructed to delay their arrival, Best said.

Several others tested positive when they arrived on campus after they failed to take the test at home and have been placed in isolation dorms, a Hope spokesman said.

Best acknowledged that analyzing wastewater, like the other COVID tests, isn’t foolproof.

“It may be that not anybody in the world has the right way to do [testing] now,” he said.

The necessity — and limits — of testing

Almost all Michigan colleges and universities plan to bring students back to campus this fall, with at least some in-person classes. MSU’s decision to move almost all classes online and close on-campus housing is an attempt to drastically lower the number of college students in East Lansing. The state’s other 14 public universities, and its private colleges, are still welcoming students in the hope that stringent health protocols can limit the potentially deadly virus.

In addition to social distancing and deep cleaning protocols, they are betting that testing will tamp down outbreaks before they spread through dorms, dining halls and off-campus parties.

But how often? What tests? And who should be tested? The new virus is less than a year old, so best practices will take some guesswork.

The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is requiring proof of a negative COVID test before students can move into dorms. Similarly, Eastern Michigan is requiring all students who plan to live on campus to get tested — and get results — before returning to Ypsilanti. 

Eastern also is shipping saliva tests to students’ homes. Students don’t have to pay for the test, which must be negative for the coronavirus for students to move into university housing.

Albion College plans to build a virtual bubble around its campus, with an app that, among other things, alerts college officials if students who test positive for the virus leave campus

At Michigan Tech in Houghton, freshmen were tested Wednesday as they returned with a throat swab that was analyzed at a university lab. The school planned to “pool” samples in groups of five for testing; if COVID was detected, samples from all five students in the pool would be then analyzed individually to determine who is infected.

The Detroit health department delivered boxes of rapid COVID-19 testing materials Friday to the Wayne State University Campus Health Center in Detroit as the school prepared to test students as they returned to class Monday.  (Bridge photo by Elaine Cromie)

“We are testing about 40 percent of our population before classes start,” said Clare Danielson, a medical technologist at Michigan Tech. “Beyond that, we are conducting surveillance on a regular basis.”

Michigan Tech, which has budgeted about $4 million for coronavirus safety efforts, will randomly select about 600 students on the 7,000-student campus for testing each week, and will also test sewage water from dormitories, checking for traces of COVID-19.

Efforts at Michigan Tech and other public universities contacted by Bridge fall short of new recommendations by White House Coronavirus Task Force chief Dr. Deborah Birx. Last week, Birx reportedly told officials from various states that colleges should test all students before allowing them back on campus, and perform 5,000 to 10,000 tests per day after classes begin.

Meanwhile, researchers at Harvard and Yale — relying on mathematical modeling and a hypothetical, 5,000-student campus — concluded that even if universities tested all students every other day, a 5,000-student campus would still suffer 243 infections in an eight-week semester. If, however, students in this scenario were tested only once a week, their model predicted 1,840 students (36 percent of the student body) would be infected. 

Even the best testing protocols have limits as a screening tool, said Linda Vail, health officer for Ingham County, home of MSU and the site of one of the highest profile public outbreaks to date at a local bar

Social distancing and other safety measures are crucial, Vail said Tuesday, the same day her county health department banned gatherings of more than 25 people in areas around campus. Health officials in Washtenaw County, home to U-M and Eastern, took a similar step Wednesday.

Students and the public can be falsely reassured by tests, letting their guard down, Vail said.

“A test result is a moment in time. … Each and every one of us could go out and get a test today, and it could come out negative, and then [we] could go and get a test tomorrow, and it could be positive,” Vail said.

That false assurance appeared to have guided decisions at Central Michigan in Mount Pleasant.

In contrast to Wayne State, Central decided not to test everyone before returning to campus, in part, because “testing could create a false sense of security as it could miss cases in the early stages of infection or subsequent exposures resulting in transmission,” said Heather Smith, Central spokeswoman.

Instead, CMU said it is requiring faculty, staff and students to “self-screen” each day for symptoms of COVID-19 before coming to campus. They can record their self-screen online or through a mobile app.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Mon, 08/24/2020 - 9:38am

Just remember one thing about college. 18 to 22 year olds, Remember when you were young. Good luck. I forgot and older and they don't live on campus. R.L.

Tue, 08/25/2020 - 11:33am

If there were fewer prisoners, there would be less sickness and death in our state prisons.
We put too many criminals in prison for too long.
We need to develop alternative punishments that satisfy our need for revenge.
Colonial period stocks and pillories were once the answer for criminals. They were short term, inexpensive, very visible and satisfied the revenge need. But, like all corporal punishment, too cruel, so we no longer put criminals in the pillory. Today we lock em up for long periods of time, but there are problems with the lockup strategy.
Prisons are expensive: over $36k per Michigan state prisoner a year with much higher cost for old sick criminals.
The recidivism rate is high. According to the National Institute of Justice, almost 44 percent of the recently released criminals return to prison before the end of their first year out.
Prisoners are invisible to us, unlike stocks and pillory, we can't see the punishment happening and lock up doesn't optimize the revenge we require.
What we need is a modern version of the pillory, minus the corporal punishment.
Work crews are an alternative. They'd be run locally, by counties rather than the state. They'd be wearing vests that identify them as criminals. They'd be doing lots of outside very visible projects like: shoveling snow off sidewalks, doing lawn care for public places and infirm residents, picking up trash along the sides of roads, etc. In addition to being punishment that satisfies our need for revenge, the work camp may provide needed work experience in some cases; work crews would be a form of restorative justice giving something back to the community rather than allowing criminals to essentially live on the dole in prison.
Those entities and residents, who receive the rendered service, pay a small fee for the service, just enough to cover the expense of providing the service. Tax dollars wouldn't be needed in some counties since there would be little room, board and medical expenses.
Most work crew criminals, like in Otsego County, live at home, reporting for work each morning where a drug test starts their day. Some, like in Houghton County Michigan, live in a dorm run by the county. Some, like in counties that offer work-release, sleep in jail cells. Some criminals have real jobs and are only on the work crews on some of their days off. Some criminals have managed to stay out of trouble, and spend less and less time on these crews, maybe no time for long periods of time. Some criminals are in rehab or education programs and are on furloughed from the work crews for these activities. Some criminals only do the day reporting part of the system, get their drug test and then get on with their day.
Jail and prison remain the Sword of Damocles. They all get a taste of it after conviction, just enough of a taste to disrupt their lives and experience regret but not so long that lock up becomes a new normal. The Sword can be quickly wheeled at any time, so there is motivation to get with the work crew day reporting program.
It would be a dynamic process, controlled by a local parole officer. The PO would have enormous power and can decide the punishment options as time goes on, but there would be an appeal process, the criminal could appeal PO decisions before a judge and the proceedings would be expedited, 48 hours max.
Electronic tracking and monitoring would be used for all criminals.
There would be no minimum and maximum sentences, just a sentence. The criminal would be under supervision for the entire sentence, generally a much longer supervision period than they currently receive.
Our state prisons would be mostly closed with just enough lock up to provide the taste of prison criminals need to appreciate the experience and to lock up those who are such an existential threat that there is no alternative for these criminals.