Iowa State to open new COVID-19 testing center

AMES, Iowa – Iowa State University is expanding its COVID-19 testing, case management and contact tracing efforts to manage infection on campus.

A new testing center will open in the next week in Johnny’s at Hilton Coliseum to increase testing availability for students, faculty and staff. The university is more than doubling the number of contact tracers and case managers who notify and support ISU students, faculty and staff who test positive or were potentially exposed to a positive COVID-19 case. The expanded capacity will support the university’s goal of identifying and isolating positive cases and quarantining potentially exposed individuals to mitigate risk.

Iowa State’s 28.8% positivity percentage (see sidebar) for those tested on campus during the second week of class is not unexpected as a result of the university’s targeted testing strategy, which focuses on testing individuals who are symptomatic or potentially exposed to someone with COVID-19. Alex Ramirez, professor of veterinary diagnostic and preventive medicine and faculty adviser for ISU’s public health team, says it is important to understand what this number means and the level of risk.

“While the percentage of positive cases among those tested is relatively high, the actual number of positives is small when considering the entire campus population,” Ramirez said. “Because the university is taking a targeted approach to testing, it is minimizing the risk to others.”

Targeted sampling focuses on those likely to test positive and is different from move-in testing, which included all students moving into the residence halls. Ramirez says move-in results should not be compared to targeted results, because they represent two different things. He says the same is true for data reported from other universities as it is impossible to compare and draw any conclusions without knowing the populations tested.

Ramirez and Jim Roth, Clarence Hartley Covault Distinguished Professor of Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine and a faculty adviser with the public health team, say the majority of exposure is occurring off campus. Based on the latest information, it does not appear exposure is happening in classrooms and laboratories where mitigation strategies are in place.

Ramirez says the research shows COVID-19 is not as contagious as some other infectious diseases, such as measles. On average, a person with COVID-19 without mitigation measures will spread it to two or possibly three people. Ramirez and Roth advise everyone to wear face coverings and to control their own space to minimize their risk.  

“Masks drive down infection rates. If we are all wearing masks and physical distancing as much as possible, both on and off campus, it will make a big difference,” said Roth, who is a member of the National Academy of Medicine. “Those infected with COVID-19 only shed the live virus for no more than 10 days. If everyone wears a mask and physically distances it will reduce infection rates.”  

Iowa State’s social gathering policy requires students to wear a face covering and comply with physical distancing requirements at on- and off-campus gatherings. The governor’s decision to close bars and the Ames city council’s work on a mask mandate connect directly with the goals of this policy.

Self-reporting critical to contact tracing

It is also critical that students, faculty and staff who test positive for COVID-19 complete the full 10-day, CDC-recommended isolation period, and self-report to ISU if testing is not conducted by Thielen Student Health Center. Effective contact tracing for those testing outside ISU is dependent on self-reporting, because off-campus test sites do not notify Iowa State of positive cases in order to initiate the contact tracing process.

Iowa State continues to follow guidance from the CDC and other federal, state and university public health experts to guide decisions for the fall semester. This includes identifying and isolating people who test positive for the virus, contact tracing, daily symptom tracking and monitoring other information, including absenteeism rates.  

Information about cases, availability of on-campus isolation and quarantine and positivity percentages is available on the COVID-19 Public Health Data Update website. Iowa State will update the page on Monday afternoons. A weekly update and link also will be posted on the COVID-19 Update and Resources page.