Mixed reactions arise as university provides free on-campus COVID-19 testing the first week of classes

Written By Amanda Andrews, Editor-Elect

For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic started, the university is implementing free on-campus COVID-19 testing the week that students, staff and faculty return to campus for the spring 2021 semester. The testing is being offered through the university’s partnerships with the Allegheny County Health Department, UPMC and the COVID-19 testing startup company Curative.  


While university officials say this is a unique opportunity to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus, students are voicing some complaints about how the administration has been handling testing. 


Previously, students, faculty or staff had to be exhibiting symptoms of the virus for the university Health Center to contact a doctor and then potentially send students off-campus for testing. This marks the first time that the university is offering widespread asymptomatic testing for the campus community, although on-campus testing will only be available this week. And Point Park is not the only higher education institution in the area offering temporary on-campus testing to their returning campus community. 


“Because the county health department was working with each of the 11 schools in Allegheny County, [they] offered to all 11 schools that we could do pre-reentry asymptomatic testing as part of the county’s supply of tests,” President Paul Hennigan said. “And so to my knowledge, all 11 of us are participating in one form or another with the county offer, and that will be administered by our partners at UPMC.”


Some students feel that Point Park offering on-campus testing is a measure that has been long overdue. 


“My initial reaction was [thinking] ‘finally.’ I was really surprised this was not available sooner,” Carah Chafin, a junior cinema production major, said. 


“I think it should be offered throughout school honestly,” Shamara Murphy, a senior business management major, said. “I’m surprised that we are not offered [on-site] COVID testing throughout school.”


Students, staff and faculty will receive the results from their tests in their email inboxes, and it is expected to take 24 to 48 hours to receive the results. The tests are also saliva-based and are being self-administered by whoever has registered to take that test. 


The Allegheny County Health Department has been working with the testing company Curative to process COVID-19 tests since May of 2020. However, recent alarms have been raised since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent out an alert to healthcare providers on Jan. 4, 2021 about the risk of Curative producing false negative test results.


Last week, LA County in California stopped using the company’s tests as a result of the alert. Scrutiny of Curative can be found locally as well. Chafin said she is very familiar with discrepancies with the company after using their testing services multiple times.


At first, Curative was an attractive option for Chafin, as they allowed for same-day appointments and, in her experience, generally did not enact the same barriers that other companies and providers did, such as requiring the person to be exhibiting symptoms, proof of a COVID-19 exposure or a doctor’s referral. 


Things changed when Chafin got a test through Curative after learning her sister, with whom she had spent the holidays, tested positive for the virus. Though she was not shocked by the delay in receiving her result due to the holiday season, she noticed the company reported back to her wrong information about how she was tested. 


“I checked the status of my test and I got tested in Carnegie and my test said I got tested in Squirrel Hill,” Chafin said. “And then I did a nasal swab, but my test said I got an oral swab. The only thing that was accurate was my personal information.” 


After sending an email to Curative, she received a response saying the inconsistencies about the location and method of testing “happen” sometimes, and they reportedly assured her that they test the oral and nasal samples the same way. Although she tested positive, Chafin was not feeling any symptoms, and the apparent mistakes in their report made her question the result. To ensure whether or not she actually had the virus, she took another test with Curative and received an inconclusive result. 


“The whole process was frustrating and weird and I don’t trust them anymore,” she said. “So I understand that they’re easy and they are very accessible, so I get why Point Park probably wants to use them, but they do have false information. I know two or three people that have had false negatives through them, and it’s just that’s two or three people who had false negatives that could have been transmitting COVID to other people. And that’s a lot of people in a COVID exposure. So I don’t like Curative, and I don’t like that the school is using them, and I do feel like we definitely deserve better as students.” 


Based on her experiences with Curative, Chafin said she will not utilize the on-campus testing and instead get tested through CVS Pharmacy or Walgreens. 


When asked about Point Park’s partnership with Curative and the possibility of false negative test results, Hennigan said the school was relying on the guidance of local and state health officials and that inaccurate test results were not exclusive to Curative. 


“Well that’s true of any of the tests that are out there right now, so the [Allegheny County] Health Department…and the Pennsylvania Department of Health have both deemed Curative to be acceptable tests for use in Pennsylvania,” Hennigan said. 


A spokesperson with the Allegheny County Health Department said that they are aware of the FDA alert and have been in communication with the company. 


“Curative informed the Health Department that it has not observed any changes in test performance and that the company is working with the FDA to address its concerns,” the spokesperson said. “The Health Department continues to monitor data specific to Curative tests, including positivity rates. Curative-specific positivity rates have consistently followed the patterns of the county’s general positivity rates—which is reassuring to the Health Department that the testing is consistent with other testing in our community.” 


While Murphy had not been aware of the alert until recently, they were critical about how effective the tests would be in mitigating the spread of the virus on campus. 


“I think it’s a little bit irresponsible,” they said. “I think it’s just a waste of time and money if they give false results.” 


The tests—while free to students, faculty and staff—are being funded through a particular person’s insurance, government funding or both resources in some cases. 


“People receiving tests will be asked to provide insurance information,” the spokesperson with the Allegheny County Health Department said. “If a person’s insurance will cover the cost of the test, the insurance company will be billed. If a person’s insurance will not cover the cost of the test, the Health Department will provide the test at no cost to the person through testing supplies purchased with CARES Act funding. If a person does not have insurance, the test will still be provided at no cost.” 


Students, staff and faculty first received official notice of the on-campus testing on Jan. 7 and were instructed in a later email to register for testing by Jan. 15. Students, faculty and staff signed up for the tests online through Curative and were asked to provide insurance and relevant personal and contact tracing information. Testing vans are to be set up in the Student Center Parking Lot, according to Keith Paylo, Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Affairs.


“The idea is to do it as far as we can towards First Avenue, not towards the Boulevard [of the Allies] because of privacy and things like that,” Paylo said. “And this van will look like the size of an Amazon delivery van, and they’ll build a temporary type of structure, like a tent, to extend that. And then the reasoning behind the system they send is students, faculty, staff, they can go and sign up for a particular time, so you’re not standing around in a line.”


When asked ahead of testing, both Murphy and Chafin said they were not entirely confident of all the details going into testing. 


“Honestly, I don’t really know what to expect,” Murphy said in an interview on Monday, Jan. 18. “They didn’t really say where this is, what’s going to happen. I just know that there’s going to be a van near the university and I just know that I’m going to be tested on the 20th at like 11:30.” 


Students, faculty and staff are all asked to watch a video from Curative that shows a spokesperson demonstrating how to accurately self-administer the test. All students, faculty and staff must wear a face mask to the testing van and bring their PPU identification. Curative is also requesting that the person being tested bring the email confirmation of their registration, a copy of their health insurance card if applicable and a driver’s license. 


Athletes who came back to campus early have already been tested. As of Jan. 13, Paylo said that none of the athletes had tested positive for the virus. 


Residential students were tested yesterday and today, while commuter students are being tested today and Friday. Originally, commuter students were to be tested on Wednesday and Thursday, but students who registered for testing on Thursday received notice late last week that testing was no longer being offered on that date at the university. Students affected by the cancellation would have had to reschedule to be tested on either Wednesday or Friday. 


Curative will still be offering tests throughout Allegheny County on Thursday, according to the Student Health Center.  


Testing is mandatory for residential students, and students living on campus who do not sign up for testing could be subject to investigation and discipline from the Office of Student Conduct. In an email to residential students detailing testing instructions, residents were told that “failure to meet this requirement (testing) will result in possible disciplinary action.” 


“We can see who’s signed up and who hasn’t,” Paylo said. 


“My sense is the overwhelming majority of resident students will participate,” Hennigan said. “And if for some reason they don’t, then Dean Paylo and his staff will do what they always do with students who don’t follow the rules and that is to follow up with them and be in touch with them and find out if there’s a reason. And if there is no reason and the student is just disregarding what they’re required to do, then there’s the student judicial process that handles that.” 


However, testing is optional for commuter students and staff and faculty, despite cumulative cases among commuters outnumbering residents, according to Point Park’s COVID-19 data. As of Jan. 18, of the 76 total cases identified among the campus community, 15 were reported among residential students and 47 were reported among commuter students. There have been 14 total cases among university employees according to data from Jan. 18. 


“The reason why it’s mandatory is because the students are living in our residence halls, and so we can make it mandatory,” Hennigan said. “We could make it mandatory for anybody coming onto campus, but quite frankly, we don’t know every student’s schedule just yet. So we thought it was more important that we get the service out there quickly, so that students could sign up in the hopes that students who are not required to take the test will be so inclined to do so.”  


Murphy, who is living on campus, supports the on-campus testing being required of all groups at the university.


“I think it should be mandatory for everybody—students, faculty, whether you’re a resident or just a commuter, and the staff should be tested,” they said. “And I think it should be offered throughout the school year instead of just one week in the spring semester because I feel like it’s just not enough testing.”


“I think commuters and faculty should almost be held to a higher expectation of being tested than on-campus students because they’re off-campus and they’re roaming around and they’re living with maybe other people who don’t live on campus,” Chafin, who commutes to campus, said. 


After this week, the university will resume providing off-site testing services throughout the spring semester in coordination with its healthcare partners at UPMC and the Allegheny County Health Department, as it did in the fall 2020 semester.