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Virginia Tech mandates COVID-19 tests for on-campus students, stays mum on athletes
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Virginia Tech mandates COVID-19 tests for on-campus students, stays mum on athletes

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Thousands of Virginia Tech students will now be required to take a COVID-19 test when they start returning to campus in two weeks, the university said this week.

Students living in university housing must get a less-invasive “mid-nasal” swab at Lane Stadium during move-in Aug. 14 to Aug. 23. Tech expects students to self-isolate until test results come back within about 48 hours.

“If you do not submit to a test, you will not be allowed to live on campus,” President Tim Sands said Friday at a virtual town hall. “Don’t come thinking you can just say, ‘I don’t want to do the test.’ ”

Tech will ask those who test positive for the virus to return home and quarantine for 14 days, though students may stay in a university quarantine space if that’s the best option for them, Sands said.

University officials emphasized Friday how vital it is that both students living in university housing and students living off-campus confine themselves to their family unit before returning.

“I understand the anxiety and the concerns, but if we have 14 days of quarantine before arrival, then I don’t think we’re going to have very many of these positive cases,” Sands said. “Assume it’s going to be negative, and if it’s positive, we’ll deal with it.”

The revision on Tuesday to Tech’s testing plan — which previously made testing voluntary for on-campus residents — comes as the university prepares for thousands of people to travel to Montgomery County, which saw a one-day record of 15 cases reported Monday, but which otherwise remains well below the statewide per capita average.

Already this summer, athletes at both Tech and Radford University have tested positive for the coronavirus, Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District, told the Montgomery County School Board at a July 21 meeting.

“My best guess would be two to four weeks when Virginia Tech comes back, we’ll start to see cases and outbreaks. Same thing with Radford, two to four weeks,” she said at the meeting, noting that both universities had hundreds of athletes on campuses then.

“We have positive cases amongst the athletes. We are not having major outbreaks,” Bissell said. “We haven’t made national news that 46 of our football players have COVID. It’s going really well.”

In an email last week, Bissell, citing state policies, declined to identify the exact source of an outbreak that health department data says exists at an “educational setting” in the New River Health District. An outbreak is defined as at least two lab-confirmed cases.

Tech has declined repeatedly to release testing data among athletes, unlike the University of Virginia, which has reported that three football players and another athlete have tested positive for COVID-19.

A Tech spokesman cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which says personally identifiable information includes “information that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity either directly or indirectly through linkages with other information.”

A UVa spokesman said, “our position is the information we’ve provided, which does not include personally identifiable health or student information, is permissible under federal privacy laws.”

A U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman said Friday the FERPA office was “slammed with other media inquiries,” and referred a reporter to a coronavirus FAQ cited by the Tech spokesman.

On Friday, Sands said the university would be assembling a public dashboard, composed of data from the health department to keep the community informed.

Contact tracers from the health department will be in direct communication with people if they may have been exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

“You can think of it as no news is good news,” said Laura Hungerford, head of the Department of Population Health Sciences at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

Though Friday’s town hall focused on Tech’s testing and contact-tracing plan, Sands said the first line of defense is for everyone to wear masks, maintain at least a six-foot distance, wash hands frequently and self-isolate when ill.

“If we all did this all of the time we would knock SARS-CoV-2 to the ground. It’s really that simple,” Sands said. “But we know we are humans, and as humans we need to be around others and we need to have time to relax without all those constraints.”

That’s why Sands and Hungerford encouraged students to “identify your pod” — a group of roughly four to 14 peers — that can interact casually and agree not to hang out with outsiders, unless masks and physical distancing are involved.

“We do need our students to hold up your end of the bargain. We’re going to provide all the support we can, but the university can’t do this alone,” Sands said. “If I were to put this very simply, it means no big parties or late nights in crowded bars and restaurants. There’s just no way to make a crowded indoor space safe without masks and distancing.”

If community members don’t follow public health guidelines and cases tick up, Sands added, “I am concerned that we will have to step back from our plans and go remote again.”

A link to the university’s testing plan, and other updates, can be found at vt.edu/ready.

Staff writer Mike Niziolek contributed information to this report.

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