Aerial view of campus from Holder Tower

University to launch asymptomatic COVID-19 testing protocol for on-campus students, faculty, researchers, staff

Aug. 18, 2020 3 p.m.

Princeton University is launching a comprehensive asymptomatic COVID-19 testing protocol for on-campus students, faculty, researchers and staff members as part of our public health plan to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Asymptomatic testing — which is for individuals not currently experiencing symptoms — will be required for members of the University community who are physically on campus for at least 8 hours per week. The cost of testing will be paid by the University.

Frequent asymptomatic testing is used for screening and for mitigation. The main goals are to monitor the prevalence of COVID-19 among the on-campus population and thus enable the prompt isolation of anyone who is positive and the quarantine of their close contacts. In this way, the University will not only protect the health of those who live and work on-campus and its ability to sustain campus operations, but also reduce the risk of transmission within the larger community. Testing is a supplement to, not a substitute for, other public health interventions required by University policy, including social distancing and face coverings.

The asymptomatic testing protocol is separate from testing for those who have symptoms consistent with COVID-19.  Individuals, on or off campus, who are experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19 (a fever greater than 100 F or 37.8 C, new cough, shortness of breath or loss of taste or smell) can arrange for testing by calling UHS at 609-258-3141 if they are students, or by contacting their primary health care provider if they are members of the faculty or staff.  All University community members, no matter where they live, are asked to email communityhealth@princeton.edu if they are tested for COVID-19 in any jurisdiction other than the University.

The University’s asymptomatic testing strategy was developed in consultation with several offices and working groups across campus, including University Health Services’ Global and Community Health team; Office of Environmental Health and Safety; and the University’s Scientific Advisory Committee, made up of faculty and staff; among others.

“This pandemic has taken our work and our responsibility to a new level of complexity,” said Melissa Marks, director of medical services, University Health Services. “We recognize that the rigor of this program and the commitment of our students, faculty and staff to comply with its requirements, as well as with other public health directives, will be crucial to our ability to protect the health of the University community.”

The program also draws on the experience of the University’s public health response team, which supported the campus community during previous infectious outbreaks, including the meningitis B outbreak in 2015.

“The program is designed to meet the needs of the individual: for clarity, privacy, compassionate communication and accountability,” Marks said. “We are confident that our partnership with participants will strengthen as we work together, in the safest environment possible, to sustain the University’s mission in these unprecedented times.”

Required testing protocol

The required asymptomatic testing protocol will include the following members of the University community who are on campus full- or part-time. More information for faculty, staff and students required to be part of testing protocol is available on University Health Services website. 

Students. Graduate students in University housing and those living off-campus who have been approved to study or work on campus at least 8 hours per week, and undergraduates being permitted to reside on campus in the fall because of housing insecurity or other exceptional circumstances.

Faculty, researchers and staff. Faculty, researchers and staff approved to work on campus (for 8 or more hours per week).

We expect that students, faculty, researchers and staff in these groups will be tested at least once a week throughout the semester, with an increased frequency based on triggers including but not limited to increased community infection rates in Mercer County, if a cluster of cases is detected, or if a cluster of cases spans two or more dormitories. Staff with frontline exposure to students (i.e., health care workers and Public Safety staff members), will be tested twice weekly for the first two weeks and with appropriate frequency for the remainder of the semester. The testing frequency for all participants will be monitored every two weeks.

In addition to participating in the testing protocol, this population is required to take an online training covering the safe resumption of campus operations. Testing and training are the requirements for all people approved to be on campus this fall. Only those members of the University community approved to be on campus should be on campus.

Testing logistics

During the initial few weeks of the program — beginning Aug. 24 — testing will take place at Princeton University Stadium Concourse, in a clinic set up with appropriate social distancing and public health protocols. Approved participants will receive an email during the week of Aug. 17 notifying them to their first testing date, with simple, clear instructions for preparing for the test, social distancing and face covering protocols on-site at the clinic, what to bring, as well as parking and other way-finding details to the stadium.

University Health Services (UHS) will administer saliva tests, which requires spitting into a tube. When supplying their sample, participants will be supported and monitored by a trained medical staff member who can answer any questions about the procedure. Participants will receive results within a few days, along with guidance regarding test results, if applicable.

June testing pilot provided road-test for fall clinic planning

On June 25 and 26, UHS held a COVID-19 asymptomatic testing pilot to screen approximately 500 members of the University community, including research faculty, graduate students and a subset of staff members approved to work on-campus. Participation in this event was by invitation. The testing pilot provided an opportunity to develop and assess the technical, administrative, clinical and operational elements necessary for the design and implementation of a successful larger-scale asymptomatic testing program this fall.

The pilot, which ran smoothly as planned, provided valuable information about planning for the fall, including on-site participant logistics and wayfinding, streamlining the receipt and communication of test results, and improvements for participant messaging at departure.

The saliva test being used in the fall asymptomatic testing program was used in the June pilot. This saliva-based SARS-CoV-2 RNA assay received emergency use authorization from the FDA in April 2020. The saliva test can be self-administered after initial clinician-directed guidance, thereby reducing the need for continuous involvement of healthcare personnel and depletion of critical PPE supplies. The test is non-invasive, ensuring greater compliance with repeated testing. The University is able to obtain the results of these tests within 48-72 hours.

Fall testing program reflects ongoing University response to the pandemic

Since the outset of the pandemic, UHS’ Global and Community Health team has been guiding the University community in its public health response.

Team members have continuously managed a range of comprehensive public health responsibilities including: contact tracing, contacting individuals regarding need for quarantine or isolation, communicating with these individuals during their quarantine or isolation, making decisions about protocols regarding discontinuance of these restrictions, and answering a multitude of complex and nuanced questions that have arisen as a result of the interplay of changing pandemic dynamics, state statutes and public health guidance, and individuals’ experiences.

These efforts, as well as the input and expertise of dozens of departments, offices and working groups across campus, informed planning for the fall testing program.

University response to COVID-19