Colleges and universities across the United States have relaxed campus requirements for coronavirus testing of vaccinated people in recent weeks, chipping away at some of the last widespread surveillance testing programs and dismaying public health experts, who say that robust sources of transmission data will be lost.
Cornell University, Stanford University, the University of Southern California and Duke University are among the major institutions that have already dropped regular testing requirements for fully vaccinated and boosted community members, or that plan to do so in the next few weeks.
Institutions like those provided a “rich environment” to understand transmission in shared living areas, said Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist and adjunct professor at University of Arizona’s College of Public Health.
Most universities making the change will continue to require that unvaccinated students and staff members be tested regularly, though that is a relatively small population on campuses with vaccine mandates. Limiting surveillance testing to that group could make it harder to track the spread of the virus and the highly contagious omicron subvariant BA.2, experts said.
Cornell, for instance, has reported that 97% of its students are fully vaccinated and 92% have also received a booster dose. The university credited its extensive surveillance testing program, which included testing vaccinated students weekly, with uncovering the rapid spread of omicron among students in December.
Two months later, university officials said they were “confident that frequent and regular testing of nonsymptomatic, vaccinated-and-boosted individuals is no longer necessary to adequately monitor our community.” In mid-March the school also eased its on-campus mask mandate.
By the end of the month, Cornell experienced a rise in coronavirus cases that appeared to be second in intensity only to its initial omicron wave in December, which resulted in final exams moving online and the cancellation of all university-sponsored events.
Cases are increasing “beyond our predictions,” officials said March 23.
Getting an accurate count of active cases on campus is now more difficult. A majority of positive test results are now being recorded through tests of people who already have symptoms, the university said, meaning that asymptomatic cases — the kind that may only be spotted through surveillance testing — have gone undetected. People who have enough coronavirus in their bodies to test positive but are not feeling any symptoms are still able to spread the virus to others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even so, some public health experts say that advances in wastewater surveillance, widespread access to rapid tests and the protection offered by vaccines and previous infections mean that shifting a university’s strategy to targeted testing could work — barring a drastic shift in the virus, like the possible emergence of more vaccine-evasive variants that scientists have warned about.
“It could easily be true that proactive testing was a useful thing for them to have done, and that they don’t need it now,” said Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington in Seattle and a paid consultant for Color, a health technology company that has run coronavirus testing for businesses and universities.
Universal surveillance testing involves a lot of work and a lot of expense, so colleges are contending with questions of sustainability. Boston University has processed more than 2 million tests at its own laboratory since August 2020 at significant cost, said Dr. Judy Platt, the school’s chief health officer. The university will end asymptomatic testing entirely after May 23.
Whatever the reasoning, the reduction in testing, particularly alongside the easing of mask mandates, has left many of the most vulnerable people on campuses feeling betrayed.
Rebecca Harrison, a doctoral candidate who was a member of Cornell’s initial reopening committee in 2020 and is immunocompromised, said she found her university’s rhetoric around learning to live with the virus to be a “slap in the face” — particularly its decision to accept some level of “inevitable viral spread” among the vaccinated, as the university’s president said during a January town-hall meeting.
Other U.S. institutions have ended widespread surveillance testing. Businesses that are eager to have employees return to offices have relied on at-home tests and self-reporting. The NFL suspended all its COVID-19 protocols, including random screenings, in March. The White House has warned that some virus surveillance would have to wind down without increased funding from Congress, leaving the country less prepared for the next variant.
“We’re giving politicians justification for the decisions they’re making,” Harrison said of elite research universities backing away from surveillance testing. “And that hurts everyone.”