Since March 2020, students at the Institute and at universities nationwide have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in unique ways; from the closure of colleges for months to the introduction of hybrid class options that feature online accommodations, students have had to adapt to a new normal.
One of the primary ways that the Institute was able to ensure a successful re-opening of Tech’s campus in August 2020 was through the implementation of a comprehensive asymptomatic surveillance testing program.
As a public university housed under the University System of Georgia (USG), Tech is subject to the guidelines enacted by the Board of Regents.
Due to this caveat, the Institute was unable to implement a vaccine mandate.
However, through the asymptomatic surveillance testing sites, the Institute was able to monitor COVID-19 cases and trends on campus.
According to the COVID-19 dashboard presented by Stamps Health Services, 518,571 asymptomatic tests have been administered since August 2020, with 72% being students and the remaining 28% being employees and affiliates.
Additionally, since March 2020, the count of positive COVID-19 cases has amounted to 6,845.
On June 30, 2022, Georgia Tech COVID-19 Task Force released a statement explaining the latest updates to the COVID-19 Institute operations in regards to asymptomatic testing, self-reporting positive cases and contact tracing. A new Public Health Planning Committee and COVID-19 Operations Team has been formed in order to take on the responsibilities of the old Georgia Tech COVID-19 Task Force that used to oversee campus operations pertaining to the pandemic.
The newly formed operations team will continue to monitor the immediate actions in response to the pandemic and will be managed by the Office of Emergency Management, which houses representatives from Administration, Finances, Stamps Health Services, the testing labs and Institute Communications.
However, the Public Health Planning Committee will take on campus management to the pandemic for the long-term response. With representatives from Stamps Health Services, Health Initiatives, Housing and Residence Life, the Office of the Dean of Students, Infrastructure and Sustainability, Institute Communications, the testing labs, GTRI, Staff Council, faculty and students, “This committee will be responsible for establishing, maintaining, and exercising the Institute’s specific public health and medical plans as part of its broader Emergency Operations Plan,” according to the news release.
One of the biggest changes to COVID-19 operations is the halt of the asymptomatic surveillance testing program. The saliva-based test was created by Tech professors Dr. Greg Gibson and Dr. Joshua Weitz and, through the collaboration of the campus community, multiple testing sites were set up in various locations on campus to collect and process samples.
Due to the Institute’s pivot from a temporary emergency pandemic response to more of an on-going effort, asymptomatic surveillance testing has been replaced by wastewater surveillance since July 1, 2022.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “Wastewater surveillance captures the presence of SARS-CoV-2 shed by people with and without symptoms. By measuring SARS-CoV-2 levels in untreated wastewater over time, public health officials can determine if infections are increasing or decreasing in a sewershed.”
The CDC also explains that, “Wastewater testing over time can provide trend data that can complement other surveillance data to inform public health decision making.”
However, the CDC cautioned in March 2022 that, “It is not possible to reliably and accurately predict the number of infected individuals in a community based on wastewater testing.”
Based on these observations, while the Georgia Tech COVID-19 testing team has thoroughly corroborated the efficacy of wastewater testing for surveillance and established the necessary infrastructure required to implement broad wastewater surveillance, many students are concerned that wastewater surveillance might make it difficult to ballpark exact infection rates.
“I just don’t know how effective this program is because I haven’t heard of it being applied in other places. I’m afraid that something so experimental might not give us a good idea about the COVID-19 spread on campus until it’s too late,” said Lily Kachmar, HTS ‘24.
The COVID-19 numbers that have been previously obtained by the Stamps Health Services COVID-19 dashboard were archived when the asymptomatic surveillance testing program was dissolved. Since the requirement for self-reporting positive tests has also been lifted, Stamps Health Services will end its internal contact tracing, creating another potential gray area in terms of infection-rate data. In order to create more transparency regarding the efficacy of wastewater surveillance, a new COVID-19 dashboard will be created in August. This new data collection website will update the status of wastewater testing periodically and report the number of positive tests from the symptomatic testing offered by Stamps Health Services. The symptomatic tests will still be administered by appointment. The COVID-19 section of the Stamps Health Services website will remain and can be accessed by students, faculty and staff in order to read in-depth updated guidelines in relation to campus operations and can be accessed via health.gatech.edu/coronavirus. More information for quarantine and isolation can be found at health.gatech.edu/coronavirus/isolation-quarantine and accommodations for attendance can be discussed with the Office of Disability Services (ODS) through the online application, documentation and scheduling an appointment with a disability services coordinator.
Stamps Health Services will maintain its symptomatic testing program in the fall for enrolled students and postdocs on the Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP). Stamps Health Services also encourage anyone who has not received the COVID-19 vaccine or booster to schedule an appointment at mytest.gatech.edu. The Institute hopes to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks through this initiative. The website contains answers to frequently asked questions pertaining to the COVID-19 vaccine and general facts for members of the Tech community looking for more information, along with reporting both campus testing and campus vaccine data.
Furthermore, Student Engagement and Well-Being has a small supply of at-home testing kits that will be given to students in order to provide them options for immediate testing.
These kits will only be available to symptomatic students; students are limited to one kit upon request in a given week.
With the wide-spread change in COVID-19 policy and operations on campus, it will take collaboration between administration and the student body to establish the boundaries necessary to mitigate the spread of the virus once the fall semester begins.
The Institute’s operation changes are part of a larger ever-changing pandemic with unpredictable long-term implications on college campus across the county and around the world.