Empty Streets

A family loads up a van in front of South Hedges Residence Hall as students leave the dorms at Montana State on March 17.

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Montana State University plans to offer asymptomatic COVID-19 testing for students returning to its residence halls for the start of the spring semester on Jan. 11

The rapid result testing will be available starting Tuesday through the first two weeks of classes, or until Jan. 22.

“We believe that this is a good time to catch students who might be returning to campus and getting ready to move into residence halls and might be unknowingly carrying the virus,” said Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner of academic, research and student affairs with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

Due to limited supplies, the asymptomatic tests are meant for students living in on-campus housing, Tessman said.

He said it would likely prevent them from infecting roommates and others they might have close contact with.

“It’s designed to limit the spread of the virus, which we believe would lighten the load on our quarantine and isolation housing,” he said.

The tests will be available at the university’s Student Testing Center, on the east side of Bobcat Stadium. The testing center has been testing symptomatic students since last fall semester. In a news release, the university said symptomatic and asymptomatic students would be kept away from each other at the site.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services is providing the test kits to the university system from a federal government supply. The university system has received about 5,000 of the kits in the initial shipment from the state agency, Tessman said.

On Wednesday, University of Montana also announced its plans to provide asymptomatic tests to all students returning to residence halls. Due to limited testing resources statewide, UM said it would be limited to students living on campus for the first two weeks of the spring semester.

Tessman said he did not know the exact number of test kits sent to MSU out of the 5,000.

He emphasized that it was the first shipment and the university system was hopeful to get additional testing kits to possibly continue asymptomatic testing.

MSU will use the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card, a rapid test kit that is designed to be easy to use and have results within 15 to 30 minutes, Tessman said.

The kit uses a nasal swab that is inserted into a test card, and the whole process needs to be supervised by a trained medical professional.

The BinaxNOW card recently gained emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Tessman said while not as accurate as the gold standard PCR test, the rapid test would allow campuses to identify COVID-19 cases quickly. He said campuses could decide whether to do a follow-up PCR test with a positive rapid test.

MSU has said those who test positive will quarantine for 10 days to prevent further spread of the virus.

The tests will be administered by the university’s health clinic staff, who are also doing symptomatic testing and vaccine distribution.

Tessman acknowledged it was a “heavy lift” for staff but said the university had adequate staffing and infrastructure in place to “carry out this multi-prong approach including return testing.”

He said the federal coronavirus relief package passed at the end of 2020 was helpful for campuses.

“We’re incredibly grateful to our university medical staff for taking this on,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado in a statement. “They have had our student’s best interests in their hearts through this whole pandemic, and they continue to amaze me with their commitment.”

Tessman said while the university system was hopeful to get additional testing for asymptomatic students, it was focused on completing the testing for returning students before moving forward.

While asymptomatic testing for returning students in on-campus residences was not mandatory, Tessman said they were asking students to choose to get tested and to be involved in the COVID-19 response.

“This is not a silver bullet, it’s not a magic solution,” he said. “We need to continue to be vigilant. There’s light at the end of the tunnel but it’s a ways off.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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