Faculty raise red flags regarding SIUE's COVID-19 testing process, fear undetected outbreak

The University of Illinois made headlines for its system of mandatory COVID-19 testing, which revealed a spike in cases on campus. A similar COVID-19 testing system will soon be at SIUE, but some community members wonder why it wasn't already in place, and what damage has been done in its absence.

Faculty Association President Mark Poepsel also said since SIUE has no system of testing all on-campus individuals, there may be an undetected outbreak.

“One of the things this year that professors [from all around the country] are talking about is what cities are the worst for spreading COVID, and they’re almost always college towns. It's simple logic: where they test more, they find more cases. Like at U of I, [St. Louis University and] University of Iowa, you have plenty of cases. It’s more of an issue of we’re not testing enough people and don't know how bad it is,” Poepsel said. “And [as of early September] there’s now only five to 10 people on campus that have it. That can’t be true, and that means our system has a problem.”

Although there is no system of mandatory testing, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Jeffrey Waple said SIUE most likely does not have an undetected outbreak, because he thinks SIUE has controlled the virus better than other colleges.

“My opinion is I think the test results are [accurate] for students at SIUE. We don't have a downtown bar district like most colleges, or fraternity or sorority houses. Fraternities and sororities at SIUE actually voted to not have any informal events, and there have been no football games either,” Waple said. “With all of that and low campus density as well, I’m not surprised [the number of cases on campus is] this low.”

Charles Berger, an English professor, said he feels the testing process at SIUE needed to be expanded and made clearer. Berger sent a message to one of SIUE’s listservs, comparing the COVID-19 testing process at SIUE versus Western Illinois University.

“I think administration has done a great job in preparing the campus, but this is one area where I think they have fallen down ... Testing procedures are vague, and until recently, they did way too few tests,” Berger said. “If you compare the whole process between [SIUE and Western Illinois University], we’ve administered maybe close to 70 tests, but they’ve done maybe 2,500.”

Waple said a mandatory, mass-testing process wasn’t set up in time for the start of the fall semester because Shield T3, the organization distributing the COVID-19 tests developed by the University of Illinois, did not yet have the capacity to expand to other colleges.

“[SHIELD was] working through their own processes and procedures and specificities, in order to get emergency FDA approval, and that didn’t happen until a week or two before [U of I] started [school],” Waple said. “With any disease test, you need to have enough cases and lab work to determine if the test is valid, so once they had enough, they got emergency approval, which was in the middle of August. Then, they figured out campus policies and procedures. They’re in a lot better shape now, rather than before.”

Regardless of a mandatory testing system, Poepsel said he wanted more clarity on how SIUE was handling COVID-19.

“Other schools have succeeded in instituting more comprehensive testing protocols and we haven’t. SIUE has been working with [University of Illinois] to use some of their innovations in terms of saliva testing of COVID, but it wasn’t ready in time,” Poepsel said. “I asked what Plan B was, but they had nothing.”

Berger agreed with Poepsel, saying he ultimately felt SIUE’s approach leaves much to be desired.

“I think we need more transparency, and more widespread testing. We need to comfort students and parents. How do you think parents feel when they see next to nothing on the website?” Berger said. 

For more information, see The Alestle’s past coverage about testing at SIUE or SIUE’s COVID-19 Dashboard.

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