Back to State testing, contact tracing and monitoring plans outlined

July 30, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As part of Penn State’s Back to State plans shared at a July 30 town hall meeting in preparation for the fall semester, the University has released plans for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing for those in our community.

Penn State will be implementing a COVID-19 testing program that will consist of in-house and third-party contracted testing for symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals. The plan includes testing individuals from locations with a high prevalence of the disease before arrival on campus as well as daily testing throughout the semester.

"From the beginning, our top priority has been the health and safety of our faculty, staff and students,” said Penn State President Eric Barron. “Our faculty, staff and health experts across various disciplines at the University have developed a comprehensive plan and set of protocols that include testing for both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals and a detailed contact tracing plan. We have established a comprehensive strategy, including ongoing surveillance of data trends and advanced predictive modeling, that will continue to inform our return to campus strategy and future steps."

COVID-19 testing plan

Penn State is in the process of signing contracts with COVID-19 testing companies, including Vault Health, for elements of the testing plan. Additionally, the University has set up testing capabilities in a new Testing and Surveillance Center (TASC), which will be used for surveillance testing at University Park.

“Recognizing that COVID-19 is already prevalent to varying degrees throughout the entire country, we took a multi-layered approach to our testing, contact tracing and monitoring strategies,” said Dr. Kevin Black, interim dean of the College of Medicine, who oversees with Steve Tracey, professor of practice and executive director for the Center for Supply Chain Research and Penn State Executive Programs, the task group working on the plan. “Our plan has multiple, parallel tracks including use of commercial vendors, development of on-campus testing capacity, analysis of risk based upon geographic location of individuals returning to campus and prevalence of COVID-19 in those communities, and development of a contact tracing program supported by information technology.”

Return to campus pre-arrival testing:

The University expects to start pre-campus arrival testing in early August, reaching 30,000 students, faculty, and staff who have been chosen for pre-arrival COVID-19 testing based solely on the infection rates in the counties where they reside. Individuals living in coronavirus “hot spots,” or areas with high or rising virus rates, will receive an email notification from the University with a unique test code and step-by-step instructions for an at-home COVID-19 saliva test, to be supervised by the vendor virtually, that will be sent through the mail overnight.

Students are required to complete the test before returning to campus, moving into on-campus residence halls or beginning classes. Test results will be shared with the student and the University. Those who test positive should not travel to campus until they are cleared to come to campus by a health care provider in accordance with CDC guidance.

Other pre-arrival testing plans include:

  • Staff and student workers (including resident assistants) who provide arrival and move-in support in high-density areas, such as check-in, will be given the at-home test or be tested at TASC, if already in State College, prior to arrival.
  • Faculty and staff who are currently living in a high-prevalence area will also be tested using either the at-home Vault Health test or in the TASC prior to arrival.

Additional guidelines for everyone in the Penn State community include:

  • If you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive or is suspicious of COVID-19, do not return to your Penn State campus. See your health care provider and get a COVID-19 test. Only travel to campus after you have been cleared by your health care provider, following CDC guidelines.
  • All faculty, staff and students should self-quarantine — even if you do not feel sick or have no symptoms — for at least 7 days immediately prior to your arrival on campus, prior to moving into off-campus housing, or prior to starting classes if you are already living off-campus.
  • Take every precaution in your travel to your Penn State campus to prevent introduction of COVID-19 to your campus community. If you are using any form of public transportation, follow all CDC guidelines regarding masking, physical distancing and hygiene practices.
  • Individuals who have been recently tested as COVID positive should not travel to campus until they are cleared.

Fall semester symptomatic testing:

The University is in the process of finalizing contracts with a highly respected COVID-19 testing company to conduct rapid turnaround testing for symptomatic or suspected positive students. Individuals who believe they are experiencing symptoms will need to make a telemedicine appointment with their campus health center for evaluation and directions for testing. University Health Services will share more information for the COVID-19 diagnostic process soon.

For Commonwealth Campuses that do not have an on-campus health center, the University also will be partnering with a COVID-19 testing company for some campus locations as well as health care facilities for local testing options. More information specific to each campus will be available soon.

The University is putting screening processes into place at campus health centers for students who need symptomatic testing on top of other medical needs. Additionally, since an increase of COVID-19 infections could coincide with flu season, the University will be setting up an increased number of flu vaccine clinics across our campuses, and highly recommend that all students get a flu shot as soon as they are available.

Faculty and staff who believe they are experiencing symptoms should consult with their personal health care provider.

As part of the Penn State Go app, the University will be rolling out a COVID-19 symptom checker as another resource in which all members of the University community can check symptoms they may be having and receive instructions for how to proceed. The app also will contain updated information about CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Health resources and helpful information, such as dining arrangements.

Fall semester continuous surveillance testing:

The University will conduct surveillance testing of faculty, staff and students on its campuses throughout the semester, testing about 1% of our campus populations (about 700 people) per day. The plan includes random and risk-stratified surveillance testing as well as testing for individuals who are identified in the contact-tracing process.

This testing will primarily be performed by the TASC at the University Park campus. TASC, which is working with experts and existing University resources, will conduct batch testing for efficiency. Each batch will test five samples at a time. Those who test positive will then be tested individually and given guidance to move into quarantine until results come back.

The University expects to designate quick testing areas across campus for asymptomatic testing. Students will be required to comply with asymptomatic testing and will be notified if they are to proceed for testing. Faculty and staff may be asked to be tested if there are concerns about a specific building or area of campus in which they work.

The University will be using the at-home Vault Health saliva test for surveillance testing at Commonwealth Campuses.

“This critical element of testing individuals without symptoms gives us the ability to monitor changes in disease prevalence throughout our campus communities, identify trends, and inform us regarding if and when additional mitigation steps are required prior to a possible outbreak occurring,” Black said.

Fall contact tracing

The University is employing strategies to create an effective detection and management system for all campuses, including testing, contact tracing, and monitoring and reacting to trends in data at the community and national levels.

The Penn State contact tracing program will leverage and scale-up existing contact tracing protocols in place at the University. The spoke-and-hub modeled program will be run by the Office of Student Affairs, with representation from Commonwealth Campuses, and will include consistent oversight for all students, faculty and staff.

The team of Student Affairs personnel, nurses and contact tracers will support the University community and enhance access to early health-care consultation and treatment. Contact-tracing supports virus case detection and is designed to help prevent future outbreaks.

When someone is identified as being positive for COVID-19, a nurse will reach out to collect information about that person’s close contacts, defined as individuals who have been within six feet of a positive case of COVID-19 for more than 10 minutes no more than 48 hours prior to the onset of symptoms or a positive test. This is in accordance with Pennsylvania state and CDC guidelines. A contact tracer will then reach out to those identified individuals with health precaution directions.

Students living on campus who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or who are suspected to have the disease and waiting on test results will be quarantined in isolation spaces at three Eastview Terrace residence halls at the University Park campus and in various designated residence halls or hotels at Commonwealth Campuses that have residential living options. Students living off campus will be accommodated with on-campus isolation space to the extent that the University is able. University Health Services and representatives from the Office of Student Affairs will support student needs via a case management system, including physical and mental health checks, academic assistance and dining services.

Faculty and staff who test positive will need to report their positive status to their supervisor, so their unit can begin the contact tracing process, and self-isolate off campus. Penn State Absence Management will answer questions and assist employees with additional needs.

Situational monitoring and public dashboard

In addition to disease prevalence, the University will be monitoring campus quarantine and isolation capacities and local hospital capacities, including data such as the number of COVID-19-positive patients in local hospitals and intensive care unit and ventilator capacities. Each campus will be monitored on an individual basis, based on localized health care capacities.

The ongoing systematic analysis will also take into account the overall health of the local communities where campuses reside, guidance and directives from the Pennsylvania governor, and advanced predictive modeling, such as how quickly confirmed COVID-19 cases double over time, to best predict the potential for spikes in prevalence and stressing of health facility capacities, in advance of those events occurring, and allowing for initiation of additional mitigation efforts.   

“We are looking at all data collected not only on a daily basis, but sometimes by the hour, to predict and adjust our mitigation efforts in advance,” Black said. “The more data points we have and the more we can follow longitudinally over time, the better we can predict disease prevalence and adjust our mitigation efforts.”

The University plans to report on a campus-by-campus basis information that includes the numbers of tests and positive and negative results, and a public-facing dashboard will be made available to all in the community. While it will not reveal individual or specific location data that could compromise privacy, the dashboard will share general community-level disease prevalence indicators.

Last Updated September 22, 2020