Purdue monitoring returning student positivity rates, new strains of COVID-19; surveillance testing ramps up for spring semester

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — As Purdue University welcomes more than 40,000 students, faculty and staff back to the West Lafayette campus, University leaders continue to monitor closely the evolving COVID-19 situation and share a series of Protect Purdue updates as the spring semester begins. 

Pre-arrival student testing 

To prevent an influx of positive cases of COVID-19 into our campus and community, Purdue has required all undergraduate students in the spring 2021 residential option, as well as all West Lafayette-bound graduate and professional program students, to be tested for COVID-19 and be cleared for campus access by the Protect Purdue Health Center before coming to campus for the spring semester.

From the nearly 34,000 tests performed thus far, more than 97% of students have tested negative for the virus. Those who test positive receive guidance from dedicated clinical case managers from the Protect Purdue Health Center to complete their isolation protocol before receiving medical clearance to come to campus. Any student who does not fulfill this requirement will not be cleared for campus access. In line with CDC recommendations that anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 not be retested for 90 days, students who have tested positive on or after Oct. 21, 2020 (e.g., within 90 days of the start of classes on Jan. 19, 2021) are not required to retest.

Purdue’s testing dashboard reports daily on the results of pre-arrival testing, as well as ongoing COVID-19 results for testing administered by PPHC, the occupancy of campus isolation and quarantine space, the reported severity of COVID-19 cases and the number of COVID-19-associated hospitalizations. 

High community spread and new variants require enhanced vigilance

Campus leaders, in consultation with the Protect Purdue Medical Advisory Team and Tippecanoe county health leaders, are examining closely the latest available evidence on the COVID-19 virus and newly reported strains, which have been detected in Indiana. Per the CDC, these new strains, which appear to spread more easily among individuals, do not appear to lead to more severe illness or increased risk of death at this time.

Importantly, all current strategies for mitigating the spread of the virus remain the most effective tools in protecting ourselves, others and Purdue’s community: the de-densification of classrooms and workspaces, physical distancing, avoiding large gatherings, the correct and consistent use of face masks, robust personal hygiene, staying home when sick, promptly isolating the infected and quarantining those in close contact for further evaluation, avoiding unnecessary travel, and proactively pursuing testing when activities or interactions suggest risk of exposure. Diligent adherence to the Protect Purdue Pledge — even in one’s shared residence and when off-campus or off-the-clock — is critically important, now more than ever.

Surveillance testing ramps up; impact on county positivity rate expected

Beginning Tuesday (Jan. 19), Purdue’s comprehensive surveillance testing program for students, faculty and staff will resume and, guided by learnings from the fall, increase in a strategic, data-driven manner.

“The decision to expand surveillance testing as we begin the spring semester is driven by what we learned in the fall and the situation we find now as compared to August,” said Dr. Esteban Ramirez, chief medical officer for the Protect Purdue Health Center. “We have a greater scientific understanding of COVID-19, yet locally and nationally we face a surge in cases, additional time spent indoors in these colder months and new variants of the virus that have emerged. It is critical that we utilize everything we have learned and every tool we have to Protect Purdue, particularly our most vulnerable, as more and more individuals gain access to the vaccine.” 

Because Fraternity, Sorority and Cooperative Life (FSCL) organizations, largely due to their nature as congregate living environments, accounted for a significant share of student cases in the fall, the spring surveillance testing strategy includes heightened testing of this population, especially during the first two weeks of the semester. 

Other elements of the plan include:

  • Required random testing throughout the semester of 10% of all undergraduate, graduate and professional program students, excluding those in the official online option.
  • Required random weekly testing of 10% of employees designated as working 50% or more of their time on campus, including faculty and staff teaching in-person courses and postdoctoral scholars who spend time in labs.
  • Required weekly testing of all on-campus employees in categories designated as critical to the continuity of core university operations, such as police, fire, medical, utility operators, and others.

In addition to this defined strategy, contact tracing, data and insights will be utilized to supplement routine surveillance testing with targeted testing in any potential hot spots on an as-needed basis.

The full spring surveillance testing protocol can be viewed on the Protect Purdue website. 

As a result of the significant increase in the number of tests conducted each week by Purdue — anticipating 7,000 tests or more each week — the reported COVID-19 percentage positivity rate will almost certainly decrease in Tippecanoe County. This alone should not be confused with a true subsiding of the virus’ prevalence; a very high COVID-19 positivity rate and extensive community spread are still a reality, and all due caution and vigilance in containing the spread of the virus should continue to be exercised. 

Eligible individuals encouraged to receive vaccination

The state of Indiana continues to issue and update guidelines for COVID-19 vaccine eligibility and distribution throughout Indiana. All Boilermakers are encouraged to receive the vaccination as soon as they are eligible. 

Based on guidance from the Indiana Department of Health, the following groups of individuals across the state are currently eligible to schedule a vaccine appointment:

  • First responders (fire, law enforcement, emergency medical services, reservists and volunteers) who have in-person contact with the public.
  • Licensed and unlicensed health care workers who have in-person contact with patients or infectious material in any health care setting.
  • Individuals who are 70 years of age or older.

Eligible individuals should visit https://ourshot.in.gov, search for a nearby vaccine clinic and select an available appointment date and time. Appointments may also be made by calling 211. A caregiver or loved one may make an appointment on behalf of an eligible senior. 

Additional details and the latest from Purdue’s COVID-19 vaccine allocation task force are available here.