By Tennyson Bush & Carolina Lumetta | Managing Editor & Associate Editor
September 24, 2020
This story has been updated to reflect President Ryken’s announcement of the testing’s results.
President Ryken emailed the campus this afternoon announcing that the weekend testing concluded with only one positive result. The four students in the positive test pool are quarantined while awaiting the results of a re-test. Ryken congratulated the campus on cooperation with the “COVID-Safe, Thunder-Strong procedures” and urged continued precautionary measures “especially since Chicagoland winter conditions could push us inside at any time, creating an ideal environment for germ spread.”
Student Health Services Director Beth Walsh said that SHS worked to offset the challenges of wide-scale testing by using “gold-standard” PCR tests and monitoring student sample collection. According to Walsh, PCR tests represent the most accurate COVID-19 tests.
Between Sept. 19 and Sept. 20, SHS carried out free, mandatory COVID-19 testing on 1,600 students in Coray Gym. The testing was strategically planned 14 days after Labor Day weekend in an effort to catch a “growing cluster” of cases arising from the holiday weekend, according to an email sent to students on Sept. 15. Approximately 500 students already receiving weekly tests for athletics, off-campus work, Conservatory activities or ROTC were exempt from the weekend testing.
Students were tested in a pooled system, with groups of four taking nasal swab COVID-19 tests and the samples collected into a single vial. According to the CDC, pooled testing is a cost-effective and timely process to screen a large group where few positive results are anticipated.
The Sept. 15 email mentioned but did not explain the pooled testing system, leaving some students confused during the testing process. Senior Kaitlin Liebling went with her roommates but did not know they were supposed to test as a group. After arriving, she and her roommates were randomly assigned to separate groups.
“I thought it was a solo thing,” Liebling said. “I would have fought harder for us to be tested together had I known why exactly they were testing in batches of four, but I wasn’t informed of that.”
As of Wednesday night, there were three active student cases of COVID-19. Additionally, 20 students and seven employees were in quarantine. These numbers do not reflect the positive test pool uncovered by the weekend testing.
Wheaton’s current caseload is broadly in-line with other Christian liberal arts colleges in the Midwest: Moody Bible Institute has documented two active student cases as of Sept. 22, and Calvin College reported that three on-campus students, one off-campus student and one employee currently have COVID-19. According to a New York Times tracker, more than 88,000 cases have surfaced on college campuses since the start of the pandemic.
Walsh reiterated the need to stay vigilant. “This virus doesn’t follow the rules, so I’m sensitive to the fact that even a college that puts everything in place perfectly may not be able to prevent an outbreak. The more we can continue the good practices of masking and social distancing, the better our chances.”
Valerie Halim, Kaitlin Liebling and Emily Nead contributed to reporting.
Wheaton College, IL