Mandated BYU random testing contributes to increase in COVID-19 case count
Updated Sept. 30, 2020 7:21 p.m.
When Utah governor Gary Herbert announced last Tuesday that the state would move Provo and Orem back to COVID-19 “orange” status, he cited an increase in the virus’s confirmed cases in Utah County. Later the same day, citing the same data, the Utah County Health Department, with the support of two Utah County Commissioners, Nathan Ivie and Tanner Ainge, issued a mask mandate for all of Utah County.
After a steady decrease in cases statewide and in Utah County from mid-July through the end of August, COVID-19 case counts began to rise just after universities opened for fall classes. The largest increase in cases recently is among those 18-25 years old.
Among factors driving the increase in case counts is a COVID-19 testing program by Brigham Young University (BYU). In addition to testing people with symptoms of COVID-19 and those in close contact with them, BYU requires all 37,500 members of the campus community to participate in randomized testing.
Students and faculty may choose to test at a site off-campus or the Student Health Center (SHC) on campus. “The SHC is equipped to do at least 200 tests a day,” said Todd Hollingshead, Media Relations Manager for BYU. The center does mostly drive-up testing but can accommodate walk-ups for those without cars. For those without symptoms, the cost of the test is free.
As recently as last week, all testing appointments were filled early each day, leading to a total of over 1000 tests administered by the SHC every week. BYU did not provide statistics on how many are voluntary and how many are required under the randomized testing program.
When a student or faculty member is selected for randomized testing, the Risk Management and Safety Department sends them a message with instructions. The individual selected must test, or their on-campus privileges may be restricted, according to instructions.
BYU had to correct a message sent to student-athletes by the athletic training staff earlier in the month after the message raised concerns about accurate case counting, even making the rounds on social media. The message instructed student-athletes to report for COVID-19 testing and said, “Failure to show [for the test] will be considered a positive COVID, and you will need to quarantine for 14 days.”
Hollingshead said the message was corrected to say, “If you fail to appear for COVID testing, you will need to quarantine for 14 days.”
“It’s like they’re holding you hostage,” said Melissa Laurence, a mother of BYU students and wife of a BYU faculty member. “You either agree to our test, even though you don’t even have symptoms, or you can’t go to class or go to work. It’s totally coercive.”
BYU also requires all campus community members to download and use the Healthy Together App, which uses Bluetooth technology for contact tracing. It doesn’t track a person’s location using GPS, but tracks who a person comes in contact with and for how long.
In early July, the state of Utah turned off the GPS and Bluetooth tracking part of the app because it was highly unpopular, and those with the option to download it chose not to turn on tracking. BYU is still using the Bluetooth contact tracing feature.
One student, whose name is being withheld to protect her job, said she went to an off-campus location for testing because the SHC has a reputation for being “backed up.” After being in close contact with a friend who tested positive, she tested positive, subsequently experiencing cold symptoms for a few days. She was surprised when she tested positive and experienced “a little congestion for a couple of days.”
Another student reported that she was required to take a COVID-19 test by her employer at a BYU facility because another student tested positive, even though she never had personal contact with the other student. She said that led to another dozen tests or so for asymptomatic individuals.
BYU student Bella Isham created a petition against the randomized testing program and the Health Together app. As of Tuesday, 3040 people had signed the petition, which stated, “This is a violation of our privacy, bodily autonomy, and a breach of the contract under which we accepted our invitation to BYU as a student or employee.”
The BYU student newspaper, The Daily Universe, published an article about the petition on Friday, September 25. The article was removed the following day. BYU newsroom director Steve Fidel said it was pulled to “do some additional reporting,” and he expected it to be republished. The news site had not updated the story as of Tuesday of this week.
Other universities around the state are also conducting required testing on students without symptoms or a history of exposure. Utah State University tested hundreds of students living in on-campus housing after elevated levels of the virus were in wastewater.
Alpine School District (ASD) offered free testing on Monday and Tuesday this week and encouraged people without symptoms to test. IHC’s Mobile Unit at Orem Community Hospital administered the ASD testing.