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Ohio State Administers More COVID Tests Than 10 States, Keeping Positivity Rates Low

Students streaming in and out of Jesse Owens North, a quonset hut on Ohio State's campus.
Nick Evans
/
WOSU
Students streaming in and out of Jesse Owens North

All day long, six days a week, students, staff and faculty file into Jesse Owens North on Ohio State University's campus. Christy Bertolo makes sure this operation keeps running smoothly.

“With a huge team of support,” she says. “Yes, we brought this all together.”

Bertolo is the director of strategic partnerships, and she’s in charge of Ohio State's sprawling COVID-19 testing program.

A population of 60,000 students and a viral pandemic like COVID-19 aren’t supposed to mix, and yet Ohio State students returned to campus last fall and have continued to attend without any major outbreaks. This regular, ongoing surveillance has been the foundation of the school’s response to the virus, allowing officials to rapidly identify cases and people they’ve been in contact with and then move them into isolation or quarantine if necessary.

The school recently expanded its program to offer weekly tests to staffers, and since Ohio State holds the license for WOSU, that includes me. Bertolo walked me through the process before I went in, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect.

As people arrive, they check in with an app, and enter the building through a makeshift tunnel. Inside, they’re directed to tables broken up alphabetically by last name. A worker checks the labels on the testing vial against the person’s name, and they swipe an ID to officially check in.

“Then they’re directed to a table where they can collect their saliva,” Bertolo explains. “It’s a really quick saliva sample, typically takes less than a minute.”

Small tables are spaced out in a neat grid on the astroturf covering half the building’s floor. Once I’m situated, a different staffer walks over to show me how much I need to fill the vial. After I’m done he swings by to double check, and then I pop the cap on and drop off the vial on the way out of the building.

“It’s a really a simple kind of seamless process from front to back,” Bertolo says.

Christy Bertolo standing in front of the Jesse Owens North entrance with students walking in to get tested.
Nick Evans
Christy Bertolo standing in front of the Jesse Owens North entrance

And it appears to be working. Early last fall semester, cases spiked—hitting a 6% positivity rate based on seven-day averages. During the current semester, though, rates started lower and they have largely traced a steady decline.

Since late January, that positivity rate has stayed below 1%. But the low number may be partially due to an enormous amount of testing.

“We’re averaging right now 29,000 people per week,” Bertolo explains. “That’s across six days, so we average anywhere from 5,000-7,000 people per day that come through, so you’re looking at typically up to 180 people every 15 minutes.”

That’s nearly a third of students, faculty and staff getting tested every week. In comparison, Franklin County is only testing about 1% of its population in seven days. Put another way, the university is testing at a faster clip than 10 states — including Oklahoma, Mississippi, and New Mexico.

Maintaining that pace hasn’t been cheap, the program has cost a little more than $30 million this academic year. All of that funding has come from federal legislation like the CARES Act.

Ohio State has since moved testing in-house, and that’s expected to lower costs by $30-40 million over the course of the project. The move also helped reduce turnaround times.

My results, for instance, came back less than eight hours later.

“I think it’s great,” Julie Edgerton says of the testing program. “Some people aren’t able to get it. I feel like it’s a privilege to be able to do it here, and it’s close. It’s pretty seamless so I feel pretty good about it.”

Edgerton is in a masters program for social work, and like all students, on campus or off, she has had to take a saliva test every week this school year. Starting Monday, students will have to start taking the test twice a week.

Edgerton says the test itself is no big deal—she goes early and spends the wait thinkig about what she wants to eat for breakfast. But finding the time to get to campus can be inconvenient.

“I work full time and then I go to school off campus, so for me it’s a little bit of a trudge to get in and get time off or maneuver my schedule," Edgerton says."But actually scheduling and doing it and checking in is fine, it’s seamless.”

Vaccines are broadly available now, but Ohio State's testing program probably isn’t going anywhere soon. With the possible spread of new variants and potentially uneven vaccination uptake, it’s likely they’ll maintain some sort of testing program into the coming school year.

What questions do you still have about COVID-19 and Ohio's response? Ask below and WOSU may answer as part of our series A Year Of COVID.