UIUC implements COVID-19 saliva test allowing for rapid test results

STAYING+SAFE%3A+One+of+the+many+free+walk-up+testing+locations+around+UIUC%27s+campus.

Photo by Maeve Cook

STAYING SAFE: One of the many free walk-up testing locations around UIUC’s campus.

By Kate Gross, Downers Grove North High School

“I believe compared to many other colleges, UIUC is doing some of the best things regarding COVID-19,” DGN alum and UIUC freshman Maeve Cook said. “The development of the saliva test by students and faculty here was a game-changer. The fact that results come very quickly makes it easier to get the exposed and infected people in isolation.”

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s new saliva COVID-19 test is a “game-changer” because it allows students, including many DGN alum who attend UIUC, to take frequent tests and receive rapid results.

Unfortunately, this testing method was not able to prevent all outbreaks. Shortly after undergraduates arrived on campus, UIUC was faced with a spike in COVID-19 cases. From the time classes began on Aug. 24 to Sept. 2, the University identified over 1,000 cases, including 334 cases from the period of Aug. 30 to Aug. 31.

Despite this, in the two weeks after this spike, the University has been able to dramatically reduce the spread and cases have dropped significantly. University of Illinois Chemistry Professor Martin Burke was instrumental in the development and implementation of the saliva test at UIUC. 

“There was a lot of interesting data suggesting saliva could be a good way to test for [COVID-19] which would be much more applicable on large scale and frequent testing than the nasal swab…where it looked like saliva could be a much better way to go,” Professor Burke said.

This testing formula has enabled the University to quickly test and track outbreaks, which has allowed them to keep students on campus and experience a somewhat normal college life. 

UIUC has opted to use rigorous testing procedures that few other universities have matched; they are requiring all students living on campus to be tested twice a week in order for them to access everything from lecture halls to local restaurants and bars. For several students, such as former Omega Feature Editor and UIUC freshman Hailey Grubich, this has provided a sense of security.

“I felt safe coming to campus…most classes are online, so I wasn’t too worried about being exposed. It’s nice that there’s testing twice a week, so you know that people who are asymptomatic aren’t roaming around campus spreading it,” Grubich said.

The University’s mandatory testing coupled with their use of the Safer Illinois app, which students use to track their test results, has helped to curb transmission of the virus. Cook feels this app has had a proactive impact on COVID-19 awareness.

“Our Safer Illinois app is a great feature; it shows our current status and test results. We have to show [the app] to bars and fraternity houses before we enter, along with when we enter any academic buildings,” Cook said.

Like Cook and Grubich, Lauren Sebek, DGN alum and UIUC sophomore, feels that students have worked well with the University and are doing their part to keep cases low on campus.

“I feel like people are being very responsible with getting tested and when people are getting positive results, they are going to hotels and informing the people that they may have exposed,” Sebek said.

However, despite the student population’s general support of UIUC’s testing and safety protocol, there have been some situations in which students have failed to follow these rules. According to Burke, this resulted in the initial rise in cases.

“We…had a period of time where the overwhelming majority of undergraduates were doing a great job and really following the guidance and doing their part…but we had a small percentage of undergraduates who unfortunately made very bad choices about knowing they were positive and going to parties or hosting parties… and this lead to a bump [in cases],” Burke said.

In response, the University has placed restrictions on socialization and punishes individuals who have chosen to disregard such rules with suspension.

“We changed some things to try to…get the case count back down…we put in a [requirement for] essential activities only for the undergraduates for two weeks,” Burke said. “Now our daily positivity rate has remained below 0.5 percent.” 

Grubich believes a significant amount of this virus transmission can be traced to specific groups, such as sororities and fraternities.

“Greek life is definitely the culprit for COVID-19 spreading on campus. I think that if we pushed rush back until the pandemic was settled down, we could have prevented rush parties and events which would help a lot with preventing spreading,” Grubich said.

Brady Moore, fellow DGN alum and UIUC freshman, experienced the effects of COVID-19 firsthand and acknowledged the impacts of lockdowns on case outbreaks.

“If we had always stayed in a strict lockdown, there would have been fewer cases. Recently, we went into a stricter lockdown and it dramatically reduced cases after only two weeks,” Moore said. “I actually had COVID-19 a couple of weeks ago and it was not bad at all. I got sent to an isolation dorm and was not allowed to leave my room for ten days.”

Like Moore, many are trying to make the best of the situation and to stay positive. Burke views this situation as a chance to help others stay safe and reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“I think this is where we have a real opportunity to be a model for how to get this right. So the way we’ve always thought about it is this is a partnership with our students…we are all in this together,” Professor Burke said.

This story was originally published on DGN Omega on October 3, 2020.