What Happened to my Test? COVID-19 Recoveries, Testing, Isolation and Delays

By Russell Payne ’21, Henry Duerr ’21

Editor in Chief, Managing Editor

March 4, 2021


 In the aftermath of a serious COVID-19 outbreak on campus earlier this year, the Herald was able to speak with Robb Flowers, Director of Student Life, and Cathy Williams, Vice President for Marketing and Communications, about some of the questions that have been on many students’ minds.

What constitutes a recovery on campus?

After receiving conflicting reports about what exactly constitutes a recovery on campus, the Herald asked Robb Flowers. He said a recovery is “someone who has tested positive, been in isolation for 10 days, and at the end of isolation has been without [a] fever for at least five days and had improving symptoms or no symptoms for five days. That’s the CDC’s protocol given that the science indicates individuals no longer have the viral load to spread COVID-19.”

Flowers went on to say: “Because we have [a] group living situation here at HWS, we do it immediately. If we think you ought to be in quarantine, we will act on that. The end date for quarantine or isolation is made by the contact tracers with whom the students speak.” The contact tracers here are in service of the State of New York.

In response to concerning reports submitted to the Herald about students backdating the beginning of their isolation, Flowers said: “Contact tracers will ask when you became symptomatic. There are often times when a student will show up to the health center with symptoms so we conduct a rapid test. We receive a positive so that student goes into isolation that day. That is the start of when isolation would occur, and it would last for at least 10 days assuming they are showing improvements by the end of those 10 days. It could be that students are backdating their isolation with state contact tracers. It could be a case of you having symptoms and getting a negative rapid test, but we place you in quarantine while we wait for a PCR test back.”

Flowers later remarked that in cases where students began quarantine or isolation before a contact tracer contacted them, they would still be expected to fulfill 10 days starting on their first positive test. Students that the school knew were possibly exposed would be preemptively quarantined, even before they received their test results, in order to prevent community spread.

What happens if I skip my test?

“For students who miss testing, we understand that sometimes you forgot. They are then placed into next week’s group and given an email update reminding them to attend testing. Anyone who intentionally skipped these tests multiple time was told they have to go home. You cannot study here doing that,” remarked Flowers.

He continued: “If an HWS student gets tested at any place in Ontario or Monroe County, we get notified of the test and the outcome.” Thus, even students who do not attend their on-campus testing but have sought testing in the community will still have their results reported to the school.

Who enforces quarantine and isolation?

Williams said, “With quarantine and isolation, you rely on individuals to be honest about their symptoms and when they started, honest about who they’ve been in touch with, and honest about staying in quarantine and isolation. This is not unique to HWS. This is how its handled across the nation. There’s no police force making sure people stay in isolation here or anywhere else. Everyone is relying on the good efforts of individuals to behave in ways that keep the best interests of the community in mind.”

In this respect, the HWS community is being treated like the rest of the country. The duty to remain in isolation is in the hands of the student body.

What happens if we surpass 100 cases on campus?

Flowers: “When we started the semester, the state was not enforcing 100 over two weeks due to entry testing. New York State guidelines are changing to reflect the winter months and the subsequent risks such as indoor socialization and decreased ventilation in buildings due to the cold. The state has issued new guidance on Feb. 19 that moved the threshold to 5 percent of the total campus population including employees such as Sodexo workers, so that bar is higher now.” The Herald interviewed Flowers on Feb. 24.

The New York State guidelines to which Flowers refers state:

“Commencing February 19, 2021, whenever the lesser of 100 individuals or 5% of the total on-campus population–inclusive of students, faculty, and staff–of a higher education institution location test positive for COVID-19 within a rolling 14-day period, the location must immediately (1) transition all in-person learning to remote format(s) and (2) limit on-campus activities for a period of 14 days. Provided, however, that a higher education institution location which tests an average of at least 25% of its total on-campus population for COVID-19 each week as part of an ongoing policy of surveillance testing shall not be required to transition to remote learning or to limit on-campus activities unless the greater of 100 individuals or 5% of the total on-campus population test positive using a 14-day rolling average.”

Flowers continued, “My concern is not the state number. It’s not the triggering mechanism. It’s literally what can we safely manage on campus. There is a limited number of us working constantly to endure that students have a place to stay, housing them across three hotels, laundry services, medication deliveries, getting meals, such as they are, delivered. They’re [delivered meals] hopefully getting better; I ask for nicer things in the meals. There is an enormous amount of work that goes into all of it. The real issue isn’t a state shutdown, but rather our capacity to manage things.”

What happened to those delayed tests?

In a normal week, tests are either driven or shipped to the Broad Institute in Boston. According to Flowers and Brandon Barile, Associate Vice President of Campus Life, tests are usually transported by volunteers from the Hobart and William Smith administrative and athletic staff and arrive in Boston the same night. When tests must be shipped, they are shipped with FedEx Priority Overnight, which guarantees delivery by 10:30 a.m. the next business day. The Herald was able to verify this after reviewing shipping documents that the administration readily shared.

Either of these methods ensure viability, as the molecular PCR tests are viable for 72 hours after collection, per the FDA. Although as explained by Brandon Barile, the Broad Institute requires a dry swab test to arrive within 56 hours of collection. Per Broad Institutes FAQ section on testing:

Specimens must be received within 56 hours for dry collection, 72 hours for swabs in media”.

In a meeting with Barile, the Herald was able to review documentation and discuss the shipping timeline from the week of Feb. 7. This was also the second week of the state testing period that ended on Feb. 12. Although tests from Monday and most of the tests from Tuesday of that week arrived the following mornings, safely within the Broad Institute’s viability period, tests shipped on Wednesday the 10 and Thursday the 11 were delayed. These delayed tests would have been collected Tuesday evening, Wednesday, and for most of the day Thursday. Both of these two shipments were delayed up to 24 hours each in Memphis, Tenn. This meant that the tests shipped on Wednesday afternoon, which would have normally arrived on Thursday morning, instead arrived on Friday morning.

Further, although the shipment from Wednesday night arrived at the Broad Institute on Friday, Feb. 12 at 7 a.m., the Broad Institute did not process the tests immediately. Thus, the delayed tests from Feb. 10 and Feb. 11 were not able to be processed within their window of viability. According to Barile, it was Friday that the HWS administration learned of shipping issues, when the results for Wednesday’s shipment of tests were not reported. An email was sent on Saturday Feb. 13 and Monday Feb. 15 to students in the delayed testing group informing them of the delay and that their tests were likely invalid. This group was requested to return for additional testing.

Feb. 14th HWS Spring 2021 COVID-19 Dashboard.
Image courtesy of Tia Fishler

What does this mean for the testing period ending on Feb. 12?

Put simply, it means that tests from Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, which would have normally been reported on Friday, were not processed through no fault of the administration. However, the period in question, from Jan. 30 to Feb. 12, registered 96 positive confirmed cases according the NYS COVID-19 tracker for HWS.

The new guidelines from NYS changing the threshold for review from 100 cases to a 5 percent positivity rate in the total campus population over the two-week period would take effect on Feb. 19. So, the previous regulations governed the testing period from Jan. 30 to Feb. 12. Because the tests were delayed by FedEx and rendered invalid, it is impossible for our investigation to conclude how many tests collected on Feb. 9 and 10 might have been reported positive on Feb. 12 if they had been processed in time.

The 23 positive cases that were reported on Sunday, Feb. 14 would have been a combination of successfully delivered PCR tests from Friday, Feb. 12 as well as antigen tests, which are processed on site and deliver results in 15 minutes. The earliest email that the Herald was able to obtain requesting students whose tests were delayed to return for more testing was sent on Monday, Feb. 15, which was also the first business day that tests could definitively have been confirmed invalid following their delayed arrival at the Broad Institute.  

For inquiries into this investigation or to report other relevant information regarding COVID-19 on the Hobart and William Smith campus please email us at herald@hws.edu.

*Edited March 5 to include new commentary from Barile regarding the Broad Institute shipping requirements, the Saturday, Feb. 13 email as well as interactive links.

Featured Image: Broad Institute Shipping Container. Photo taken by Russell Payne.

Leave a Reply