Same doctors and nurses caring for COVID-19 patients struggle to get tested, which increases their likelihood of inadvertently spreading COVID-19 to their patients or their own families. Although some hospitals are expanding their testing capacity – for example, by covering the cost of rapid antigen tests purchased by their employees – healthcare workers still struggle to obtain convenient and timely tests.
Fortunately, universities may be able to help with this problem.
Massachusetts colleges have created systems to test students and employees for COVID-19 to keep campuses open and outbreaks at bay. While these efforts have enabled universities to run in-person classes throughout the fall, Omicron’s push has led many universities to delay start dates in person for the spring quarter or move the January quarters fully online. With students no longer on campus, many schools run significantly fewer tests than in the fall semester.
For example, last fall, Harvard University regularly processed over 40,000 PCR tests per week for students and staff in a laboratory within the university. Since the start of the winter break, Harvard has treated less than half of tests every week. The university’s decision to move courses online until january 24 means Harvard may retain excess testing capacity until that date. Other Massachusetts universities, including Boston university, Northeastern University, and Boston College – also process at least part of the COVID-19 tests of their students and internal employees and in the same way saw a drop test as the students left campus for winter break.
Of course, just because a university runs fewer tests does not mean that it has excess testing capacity. For example, some schools outsource their tests to commercial labs, which likely reallocate testing capacity as demand changes. Additionally, universities that perform in-house testing may experience problems maintaining high processing rates (for example, because employees in these labs may be sick with COVID-19). Finally, schools may purchase test kits or other resources from external vendors, and some may have taken into account the lower number of students on campus when placing orders.
Yet as the Omicron wave puts pressure on the healthcare system, some universities are well positioned to help. They could focus on testing healthcare workers at hospitals affiliated with their institutions, as these workers may have the login credentials needed to register test kits or work close to where the tests are distributed. Additionally, testing these healthcare workers would protect students doing clinical placements or researching at hospitals affiliated with universities.
While it’s complicated for universities to use their excess testing capacity to test healthcare workers or other high-risk populations until students return, unprecedented times call for extraordinary measures. COVID-19 testing is currently a scarce resource, and universities should help alleviate testing shortages by sharing excess capacity until students return.
Leah Pierson is pursuing a doctorate in medicine and a doctorate in public health at Harvard University. Haley Sullivan is a Harvard doctoral candidate studying health policy.