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UW-Madison ramps up saliva-based COVID-19 testing on campus to quell any potential outbreaks

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel logo Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 1/21/2021 Devi Shastri, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
a man sitting in front of a window: UW student Kingsley Pissang fills a vial containing a COVID-19 saliva test sample at a testing location at the Pyle Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on January 14, 2021. During the Spring 2021 semester, students will be required to take two saliva tests per week as part of the Safer Badgers COVID-19 response plan. © Bryce Richter, University of Wisconsin-Madison UW student Kingsley Pissang fills a vial containing a COVID-19 saliva test sample at a testing location at the Pyle Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on January 14, 2021. During the Spring 2021 semester, students will be required to take two saliva tests per week as part of the Safer Badgers COVID-19 response plan.

Officials at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have launched their new saliva-based COVID-19 testing program which, once in full swing next week, will take the campus from conducting around 12,000 tests per week to 82,000.

The saliva tests, developed by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers, will model UIUC's fall testing regimen, which was hailed as one of the more robust university COVID-19 testing programs in the country. 

UW-Madison officials say they hope the increase in testing capacity will quickly quell any outbreaks that arise as students return to campus and throughout the spring semester.

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"We do believe this will have a positive effect, and if you look at where this strategy has been used elsewhere, such as Illinois, I think you'll see that that surge when it was experienced was more modest and was quickly brought under control," said Jake Baggott, executive director of university health services.

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UW-Madison saw a major COVID-19 case surge at the start of last semester, leading to the lockdown of its two largest dorms and a two-week shift to put all classes online. At its peak in September, the university's seven-day positive testing average topped 10%. Cases also ticked up slightly again in November, according to university data.

UIUC also saw a spike in cases early in the fall semester, but was able to use frequent and widespread saliva-based testing to keep its positivity rate below 1% through the rest of the semester.

UW-Madison will increase testing for dorm residents to twice a week this spring, and all off-campus undergraduates living in the ZIP codes surrounding campus will also need to be tested twice per week. Graduate students and employees are required to have tested negative for the virus once a week if they come on campus.

Also based on the Illinois model, people tested on campus will be required to download the Safer Badgers app, through which they can schedule tests and receive their results. Students will receive a green "Badger Badge" in the app when their test returns negative and they are in compliance with testing requirements. The badge will allow students access to campus buildings, where access will be monitored by campus employees beginning Feb. 1.

The app also allows users to track their COVID-19 symptoms and to receive exposure notifications if they chose to.

Students living in residence halls will continue to get the nasal swab COVID-19 test, which are processed at the on-campus lab the university established last semester.

a person holding a flower: A University Health Services employee takes a COVID-19 sample at a testing site set up at Henry Mall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus in Madison on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. This spring, the campus will launch saliva tests developed at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. © Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel A University Health Services employee takes a COVID-19 sample at a testing site set up at Henry Mall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus in Madison on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. This spring, the campus will launch saliva tests developed at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

All other students and employees will get the saliva test, which takes about 15 minutes to conduct and should yield results within 12 to 24 hours.

Both tests are PCR tests, which are more accurate than rapid tests used by other UW schools.

UW campuses beyond Madison will also be increasing their testing capacity this spring, by requiring weekly testing for dorm residents. All non-residential students, faculty and staff at those campuses will be tested at least once every two weeks.

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UW-Madison will pay $25 per saliva test, according to a contract obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The saliva tests, though affordable, are in high demand. UW-Madison paid a $1 million deposit to the University of Illinois-affiliated testing company, Shield T3, just to reserve the testing equipment.

Aerin Leigh Lammers, chair of the university's COVID-19 student advisory board, acknowledged the new testing plans would have their growing pains, but ultimately the increased availability of tests is welcome news to students. 

"Most of us are pretty excited about the fact that we really are going to feel a lot more comfortable walking around on campus, feel a lot more comfortable going into the larger Madison community knowing there we're not going to be the cause of a big spread," Lammers said.

Contact Devi Shastri at 414-224-2193 or DAShastri@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DeviShastri

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: UW-Madison ramps up saliva-based COVID-19 testing on campus to quell any potential outbreaks

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