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It’s Hard to Keep a College Safe From Covid, Even With Mass Testing

The University of Illinois had a state-of-the-art reopening, and then the virus cases piled up.

Foellinger Auditorium on the Main Quad at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Ill.

Foellinger Auditorium on the Main Quad at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Ill.

Photographer: Glenn Nagel/Alamy Stock Photo

When the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign welcomed more than 35,000 students back to its Central Illinois campus in late August, it looked like it could be more than just another school reopening in the Covid-19 era. It was a real-world example of the sort of public health measures many experts long have been urging: frequent testing—even of people with no symptoms—combined with contact tracing and technology-enabled exposure notifications.

Researchers at the university, a science and technology powerhouse, designed a saliva test that would be easy to collect and process, to be taken twice a week. They developed an app that monitors results and can quickly notify close contacts of anyone testing positive. Those who test positive are instructed to quickly self-isolate. Masks are required, and large gatherings were put off-limits. Modeling developed in-house projected it would all work. With more than 255,000 tests performed, the school has done more than 5% of the state of Illinois’s total screenings so far and accounted for nearly 20% of them last week. Students, faculty, and staff at UIUC may be some of the most-tested people in the U.S.