UVM President defends coronavirus testing program, estimates it could cost $10 million

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FILE – In this Friday, June 12, 2020 file photo, a nurse uses a swab to perform a coronavirus test in Salt Lake City. Months into the outbreak, no one really knows how well many of the screening tests work, and experts at top medical centers say it is time to do the studies to find out. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The president of the University of Vermont President said the coronavirus testing program for students, faculty and staff returning to campus will cost $8 million to $10 million over the fall semester.

But Suresh V. Garimella said it’s worth every penny if it prevents an outbreak of COVID-19.

“We view the cost of testing as an investment, and measure [return on investment] both educationally, in the quality of the experience we’ll be able to offer students, and financially, as more students are persuaded to persist this fall in a safe on-campus setting,” Garimella wrote in an op-ed published at Inside Higher Ed. “In simple cost-benefit terms, it is money well spent.”

Garimella said all 12,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students, whether they live on- or off-campus, will be tested at home and be required show a negative result before they ‘ll be allowed on campus. The school has contracted with a company will delivery, retrieve and cataloging the tests, which will be processed at Rutgers University and shared with UVM.

All students, not just those showing symptoms, will be tested when they arrive for the start of classes, and then every week for five weeks. The Broad Institute, a biomedical research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will process the tests and are expected to provide results within 24 hours.

Garimella said the university has set aside space in “supportive isolation” for students who test positive.

“We know nearly half of all COVID-19 transmission comes from non-symptomatic carriers,” Garimella wrote. “Testing only those with symptoms — as many colleges will do — is no way to stop the spread of the virus.”

Garimella said UVM’s testing protocol developed with guidance from public health and infectious disease experts from the university’s medical school faculty in our medical school. He called it “one of the most comprehensive in the country.”

Also on Monday, Garimella responded to concerns raised last week by Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger about UVM’s reopening plans. Those concerns, outlined in a letter, include the decision to back off a commitment to test students twice a week.

Weinberger also said he wanted test results from the university daily, not weekly, and for the school to share non-confidential information about off-campus positive cases.

“Despite weeks of coordinated planning and multiple discussions with your team, I continue to have concerns with UVM’s current plan in a number of key areas,” Weinberger wrote.

Garimella defended UVM’s “Safe and Healthy Return to Campus Plan,” saying it was created after consulting with Gov. Phil Scott, the Vermont Department of Health and “our own internationally recognized public health and infectious disease experts.”

And he pointed out to the endorsement by Health Commissioner Mark Levine, who gave his stamp of approval Friday. He called the plan strict and included holding people who do not adhere to it accountable.

Garimella said UVM’s testing protocol is “more aggressive than any college in the state of Vermont, and one of the most aggressive in the entire nation.”

“I recognize that you and your office have the best interests of the City of Burlington at heart and we share that commitment,” he said. “But I urge you to view our Safe Return to Campus plan and related efforts not as a collection of discrete items, but as a comprehensive strategy that is the result of months of research and planning.

“This strategy reflects the guidance of our Governor, our public health experts, and the CDC, as well the many conversations our team has had with you, your office and your constituents.”

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