Targeted COVID testing strategy is doing its job

Iowa State's COVID-19 targeted testing strategy and contact tracing is working to find the positive cases in the university community -- and protect the rest, Dr. Alex Ramirez said during an Aug. 31 town hall among senior leaders and employees. Ramirez, assistant dean for academic and student affairs in the College of Veterinary Medicine and an infectious disease specialist, is serving this fall on the university response team and as adviser to the COVID-19 public health team.

Since classes started, Iowa State's strategy has been to identify positive cases and isolate them from the general population, so those being tested at the Thielen Student Health Center either show symptoms or were exposed to a confirmed positive case. It's a group you'd expect to test positive often, he said. In fact, the percentage of positive test cases conducted at the center was 13.6% in the first week of class and nearly 29% in the second week.

Second campus test site

Johnny's (east side of Hilton Coliseum)

Of the 633 positive tests run on campus during those two weeks, just five were employees; the rest were students. Another eight employees used the online form to self-report positive results from other testing locations during those two weeks. Ramirez said the number of faculty or staff seeking a test also remains low.

He said mitigation strategies in the classroom -- face coverings, physical distancing, reduced capacities, more frequent cleaning by custodial teams -- coupled with moving large classes online and options for working remotely are keeping employees and students safe.

"All of us have the ability to control our exposure by practicing these strategies indoors. We have great control," he said. He defined exposure as being closer than 6 feet for more than 15 minutes to an individual carrying the corononavirus. The risk of exposure outdoors is much lower, he added.

President Wendy Wintersteen said senior leaders believe most of the exposure is happening off campus, where and when students don't follow the Cyclones Care healthy behaviors. Large student gatherings held the weekend before classes began resulted in more students being tested and an increase in positive cases, she said.

Responses to that upward trend have included a new student policy on large social gatherings during the pandemic approved Aug. 14, Gov. Kim Reynolds' 24-day shuttering of bars in six counties, including Story, on Aug. 27 and the Ames City Council's approval this week of a citywide face covering ordinance.

When asked about classroom instruction in spite of a rising positivity rate, Ramirez said students who test positive have been removed from classrooms, where numerous mitigation strategies also are in place. The data, he said, indicates transmission is happening off campus, not in classrooms, so halting in-person teaching won't stop the spread of the disease.

Wintersteen said the public health team and senior leaders are assessing new information almost daily to consider moving all classes online and as many employees as possible back to remote work arrangements. She also said the university's 50% classroom capacity benchmark will get another look, in response to numerous questions about it.

Case dashboard

On Aug. 31, Iowa State launched its new COVID-19 testing dashboard. Updated every Monday, it includes data about Iowa Staters from both on-campus and (self-reported) off-campus testing sites. It also provides weekly updates on numbers of students and employees both in, and released from, isolation and quarantine, as well as data on available campus isolation and quarantine rooms.

Additional testing and contact tracing resources

Wintersteen said the Thielen Student Health Center will open a second testing site for students and employees at Johnny's lounge in Hilton Coliseum. A majority of the COVID-19 testing will occur there. Additionally, Story County's first Test Iowa drive-through clinic, a partnership with Mary Greeley Medical Center, opened Aug. 31 in the research park at 2503 South Loop Drive. Complete the online assessment, then call 800-866-3492 to schedule an appointment (Monday, Wednesday and Friday 12:30-7:30 p.m.). Remember to bring your QR code to your appointment. Test Iowa results are reported to the Iowa Department of Public Health, not the university. Individuals who use the service and receive a positive test should self-report to the university.

The university's roster of case investigators and contact tracers will double to more quickly identify and isolate positive cases and mitigate risk for the community. Assistant vice president for student health services and Thielen center director Erin Baldwin said as of this week more than 90 case investigators and more than 120 contact tracers have been trained.

Mental health support

Baldwin said compassionate care for any ISU community member who tests positive or was exposed to a positive individual is a top priority. Employee service options include the Employee Assistance Program and, new this fall through a partnership with student government, Therapy Assistance Online, a self-help library of resources.

Test samples

Rodger Main, director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL) where Thielen COVID-19 test samples are processed, said Iowa State doesn't use a simple saliva test to diagnose the disease because they're not approved for use at either the VDL or the State Hygienic Laboratory in Iowa City. Approval occurs on a lab-by-lab basis. Iowa State uses the nasal mid-turbinate swab test, less invasive and faster to collect than the nasopharyngeal swab method. Both nasal options are considered the "gold standard" for testing, Main said.

Revised: Notifications to instructors

University response team chair Frank Peters said beginning this week faculty will receive two notifications about their students impacted by COVID-19:

  • The first, sent from, goes to the instructor (department chair is copied), informing them a student in their face-to-face class tested positive. The email asks the instructor to confirm they have uploaded the most recent class seating chart to their named folder in CyBox for contact tracing purposes.
  • The second, from the dean of students office, goes to the instructor (student's academic adviser and, starting this week, department chair, are copied), and identifies students in online and in-person classes who should not be in class due to either isolation (positive case) or quarantine (exposure to a positive case) and a timeline for the students' expected return. Peters said academic advisers are encouraged to contact their students to see if they can provide support.

Peters clarified this process won't occur for students not in class because they feel ill and are following the Cyclones Care mandate to stay home.