COLUMNS

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January 19, 2021

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5:59 p.m.

Winter is Coming. Will UChicago Adapt its Testing Infrastructure?

To protect our community this quarter, the University must expand mandatory and voluntary testing.

People tend to be ambivalent about the New Year for the same reasons they’re ambivalent about their own birthdays: As much fun as cake, candles, ball drops, and Brut are, they also usher in an oft-uncomfortable period of reflection: What did you do with your year? It’s a good question. And here we are, more than a year past the initial outbreak of COVID-19, and we’re no closer to managing it effectively than we were months ago. UChicago’s coronavirus testing and tracing policies have proved misguided and misleading in equal measure. Rather than maintaining the illusion of good policy by testing a limited group of students and faculty, the University needs to expand the mandatory testing program to include all members of the community expected to be on campus and reevaluate the voluntary surveillance program to prioritize the people that need it most. 

At first glance, the University’s GoForward program—which includes a health pact, weekly testing and case reporting, and large-scale contract tracing—looks comprehensive. It seems to have proved reasonably successful, too; unlike dozens of other colleges, UChicago remained open throughout its first quarter without being forced to send hundreds of students home, reported a comparatively low fall quarter positivity rate of 0.22%, and managed to offer students in-person classes from September through late November. Going by the data—or, at least, the data provided by the University itself—GoForward was a resounding “success.”

Here’s the issue: We got very, very lucky. Because the University might as well have rolled a die and hoped for the best, and if we’re being totally honest with ourselves, that’s exactly what it did. I’m not trying to undermine the administration’s tireless efforts to maintain safety, but I’m entirely willing to call the success of GoForward what it is: aleatory. Testing policies throughout the first quarter were riddled with oversights and miscalculations, and if the University maintains the current standards for testing and tracing throughout the next two quarters, we won’t be anywhere near as fortunate.

Any self-respecting horror movie aficionado could tell you that in the event of a highly virulent global pandemic, the first thing you should do is check people at the doors. And the last thing you should do is place your faith in people’s best judgment. The University of Chicago flagrantly ignored both tenets, first making coronavirus testing for students and faculty living off-campus voluntary, and then permitting untested students and faculty to attend in-person events and classes on campus. It seems like a recipe for disaster; after all, it just takes one person to turn a seminar into a super-spreader event. It didn’t happen, but it could have, and that’s the point: The University willfully endangered its on-campus student population by promoting stringent COVID regulations, but failing to enforce them. It’s this type of hypocrisy that breeds catastrophe, lulling people into a false sense of security and ultimately hitting them with something they never saw coming. The University’s actions were reckless, irreverent, and had the capacity to become deadly—and in a pandemic, being rash is a crime.

But, almost impossibly, it gets worse—because the only thing worse than misdeed is misrepresentation. (Feel free to refer to, among other things, Dante’s Inferno, which lists “fraud” and “treachery” as more egregious than “violence” and “wrath.”) The University’s weekly coronavirus reports constitute a massive mischaracterization that could prove fatal. The number of reported cases—alongside associated data, like positivity rate and R0—relies on students and faculty living on-campus, as well as those living off-campus who opted for voluntary testing. This neglects the significant portion of the University community that doesn’t get tested, including many students living in off-campus housing, rendering much of the data useless. The way positive cases are presented on the GoForward dashboard makes it impossible to know the number of cases found among students living off-campus who attend in-person classes, even if those students are being tested. 

Even under ordinary circumstances, nearly half of the students at UChicago live off-campus, and this year, that percentage is likely even higher. Those off-campus students are under no testing mandate, even if they attend classes in person. The low number of students on campus may contribute to UChicago’s apparent success relative to its peer institutions, and any success that comes with a caveat attached can’t really be considered a success at all—not in the midst of a global crisis. Complacency is a dangerous thing, and GoForward encourages us to be complacent, boasting low contact rates and few confirmed-positive tests without addressing the gaping flaw that is the narrowness of its scope. If the University truly wants to implement a successful coronavirus management program, it needs to start with the twin virtues of common sense and integrity. 

As with most things, there’s both good news and bad here. We’re all in dire need of a little cheer, so I’ll lead with the good news: The vast majority of UChicago’s testing policy flaws are easily remedied. By broadening the mandatory testing program and creating a priority ranking system for people seeking voluntary testing, the University can get a little closer to keeping its students and faculty safe. The bad news, however, is this: Until the administration acknowledges the limitations of its existing testing policy and modifies its approach accordingly, that safety will continue to be as elusive as it is right now. As the days get shorter and the air gets colder, and as people spend more time indoors, often in close contact, winter quarter is a critical juncture in UChicago’s journey towards something resembling normalcy. If administrators handle it well, we could be looking at a coronavirus-free campus a few months from now; if they handle it badly, they could put our lives at risk.

There are a few steps the University can and should take immediately. I realize that testing each and every person in a college community this large is a logistical nightmare, and that testing resources are limited and often expensive, but it’s crucial that the University tests everyone expected to attend classes on campus. Students and faculty taking classes virtually and living off-campus should still be afforded the opportunity to enroll in voluntary testing—but those of us that are on campus in any capacity shouldn’t have a choice. The nations that beat the virus the quickest, including Belgium and South Korea, did so by testing as many of their residents as possible and as many times as necessary. Even if it’s impossible for the University to test the entirety of the college community, it’s critical that the voluntary testing program prioritizes those that need it the most, especially since an expansion of mandatory testing would probably necessitate reducing voluntary testing slightly. By factoring in students’ and faculty members’ relative risk with a point-based ranked system that determines risk by assessing pre-existing conditions, age, and frequency of contact with groups of people, UChicago can keep its most vulnerable safe. What’s arguably more important than testing policy itself is how it’s presented; by rejecting comfort for reality, however jarring it may be, and confronting the fact that there’s more to the data than meets the eye, the University can make sure that we as a community know what we’re getting into. We have no excuse for doing otherwise. 

I’ll leave you not with a sweeping statement or a plea, but with a request: imagine, just for an instant, what the New Year might look like next year. It could look as austere as it did a few weeks ago, or it could look more like what we want it to: raucous. There’s only one way to get there, and it starts with a teaspoon of common sense. 

Ketan Sengupta is a first-year in the College.