Our view: Success of test program mixed at best

Herald pull quoted, 9/2/20

North Dakota University System leaders are disappointed with low student turnout during statewide testing events held earlier this month, and rightfully so.

A Herald report published last week noted that only about 14% of students across the system participated in the program, designed as a method to track potential coronavirus infections among the students enrolled in the 11 institutions within the state’s higher education system. Catching potential cases early, the theory went, would allow the state to better keep the virus off campuses as classes reopened.

Fourteen percent of 41,000 is about 5,740 students. That’s not even half the enrollment number of UND or North Dakota State University.

The program cost millions of dollars and, as reported, relied upon the good faith that students would act responsibly and participate.

Last week in this space, we said that apparently a high case count at UND -- at the time, it was 187 -- possibly was due to the testing efforts undertaken by the state and at UND. It was good to have caught those cases early, before those students and faculty returned to campus. Thus, we concluded, the testing initiative apparently worked. That was before official participation numbers were released.


To an extent, we still believe testing worked. If testing 5,740 students before they returned to campus helped keep hundreds of COVID-positive students from coming back to class, it was at least a small success. UND saw approximately 30% of students tested prior to the resumption of classes last week.

But overall? It cannot be deemed a complete success, considering the effort and dollars spent versus the number of students who actually participated.

NDUS officials now know positive cases exist, and that’s good. It’s also good that more students were tested than otherwise would have been. But without some way to require students to participate, this ambitious plan was destined for lukewarm results.

Unfortunately, according to Dr. Joshua Wynne, head of the NDUS Smart Restart task force, the participation rate could portend some ugly statistics. He said last week that upwards of 2,000 college students in the state theoretically could be infected, since 5% of those who participated in testing were positive. Five percent of 41,000 (total statewide enrollment) is 2,050.

Going forward, university leaders are working to determine why testing turnout was so low.

Were students nervous about the potential use of nasal swabs, an uncomfortable process that has become taboo during the pandemic? Probably.

Do too many young adults have a laissez faire attitude about coronavirus? Probably.

Was it unrealistic to expect students to travel, on their own time and at their own expense, to remote testing sites across the state? Probably.


Our concern is that the lower-than-anticipated turnout has increased the likelihood that asymptomatic students are in the community. If so, it increases the importance of wearing masks, social distancing and mandates from the city and state. A mayoral executive order declaring an 11 p.m. closing time for Grand Forks bars is a start.

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