As campuses across North Dakota deal with coronavirus cases, health department leaders say they are looking to take a different approach to testing.

Going forward, the system is looking to be more strategic in how and where it tests, said Vern Dosch, the state's contact tracing administrator who is spearheading the testing effort in North Dakota.

“We want to be good resources, good stewards of the resources that we have in terms of testing,” he said, speaking to the Legislature’s interim committee on higher education.

The system, along with health officials, are focusing on targeted testing, Dosch said. That could include working with the universities to target a certain dorm or Greek life. It also could include students who work with vulnerable populations or those who work in close quarters labs, where social distancing isn’t always possible, he said. Testing resources will continue to be available to students who are showing symptoms, Dosch said. Health officials also would look at targeted hot spots as they come up.

“We've seen hot spots in communities. We've seen hot spots on campuses," said Dosch, noting some hot spots have been found in particular work environments. “We want to be able to have a team, a kind of a SWAT team, that is allowed and has resources to move around very quickly.”

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Targeted testing has been a point of discussion for individual universities for several months. UND President Andrew Armacost has said, in the past, that targeted testing would be important for groups such as athletes, who gather in larger numbers for practices and workouts.

Because the work to make testing events happen and to get the results to the lab can be cumbersome, the health department is researching various ways of testing. The department recently received 20,000 saliva tests. When the health department receives approval to use them, those tests will be sent for use at UND, Bismarck State College and Fargo Public Health.

While there are logistical and cost benefits to those types of tests, Dosch acknowledged that the accuracy of those spit tests may be lower.

North Dakota State is also doing research related to wastewater detection of the virus.

The health department has done about 14,433 students with students from Aug. 13 to Sept. 13, including 985 total positives. There have been 9,430 unique tests across the system with 912 unique positives for a total positivity rate of about 9.67%.

The totals represent students who were tested at their school and those who were tested in their communities prior to returning to campus.

But the numbers vary by campus, Dosch said. UND and Dickinson State, both located in counties with high active case counts, are registering a nearly 13% positivity rate among unique individuals. UND has conducted 3,795 unique tests with 491 positives in that time, according to a slide presented during the meeting. Dickinson State, meanwhile, has conducted 432 unique tests with 56 unique positives. Other schools, such as Bismarck State and North Dakota State College of Science, have done less testing. Bismarck State has performed 156 unique tests with 18 unique positives, giving the college a 11.54% positivity rate. NDSCS has done 74 unique tests with three unique positives for a positivity rate of 4.05%.

A slide presented at the interim higher education committee meeting held Monday, Sept. 14 shows testing numbers at colleges and universities in North Dakota.
A slide presented at the interim higher education committee meeting held Monday, Sept. 14 shows testing numbers at colleges and universities in North Dakota.

Dosch said the system is working to develop a dashboard for leaders to look at daily data systemwide.