As students, faculty and staff prepare to return for the University of Michigan’s fall semester, President Mark Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins have outlined for employees U-M’s coronavirus testing regimen, its rationale and underlying considerations.

In an Aug. 18 email message to all faculty and staff on the Ann Arbor campus, Schlissel and Collins reiterated that reopening plans are based on the latest safety recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state of Michigan, and experts from public health, education, medicine, engineering and others across the campus community.

“Our goal is to continue to serve our mission to the greatest extent possible, while balancing that with the health and safety of everyone involved,” they said. “Short of a total lock-down, there is nothing we can do right now as individuals, as a university, or as a society that does not involve risk and mitigation strategies.”

Schlissel and Collins acknowledged the university’s strategy around screening tests for virus infection in people without symptoms has elicited many questions. While U-M plans to test anyone who is symptomatic for COVID-19, it will not conduct widespread testing of asymptomatic individuals.

“Focusing on asymptomatic testing draws resources from symptomatic testing, quarantine, contact tracing, and behavior modification,” they said. “Our advisory groups feel it is important to put time and energy on what matters the most. The essential aspects of mitigation include physical distancing, masks, handwashing, screening, etc.”

Their email outlined the testing, social distancing and contact tracing approach the university plans to take for students, faculty and staff in the fall. That includes:

  • Anyone who is symptomatic will be tested, with students tested through University Health Service, and faculty and staff tested through their health-care providers.
  • A team of public health and other graduate students are being trained to serve as contact tracers for the campus community.
  • Each day, all members of the U-M community coming to campus will be expected to check themselves for COVID-19 symptoms by answering a brief set of questions using a daily symptom-checker tool.
  • Several thousand students, faculty and staff will be surveillance tested each week on a random opt-in basis to help determine the spread of the virus in the community.
  • All students will be expected to practice enhanced social distancing for two weeks before coming to Ann Arbor.
  • Students moving into residence halls and apartments will be tested for COVID-19 before they arrive on campus. Those who test positive will have to remain at home for at least 10 days before coming to Ann Arbor.
  • Students who arrive on campus not having been tested will be given a test and limited in their interactions until results are back.
  • Six hundred single rooms have been set aside for isolation or quarantine for students if needed.

U-M next week is rolling out new features of the symptom-tracker tool — now called ResponsiBLUE — including making it available soon as an Apple or Android smartphone app. Also, on the Campus Maize & Blueprint website, a dashboard of COVID-19 activity, updated weekly, will be added in the coming week.

The email indicated U-M plans to screen around 3,000-3,500 individuals weekly as part of the opt-in surveillance testing, based on a program developed by Emily Martin, associate professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health.

“This testing can be focused on highest risk individuals, especially those living in communal housing,” Schlissel and Collins said. “At this time, there is nothing from public health guidance that suggests we should be conducting widespread testing of asymptomatic individuals.”

Other universities are developing and implementing home-grown tests for mass testing, but U-M is not employing this strategy because it has not yet proven effective and to avoid the potential for hundreds of false positives.

Testing capacity is also limiting. Michigan Medicine has a capacity of about 10,000 tests per week, a number expected to increase, but the resources required to collect, process and follow up on thousands of tests each day far exceeds what U-M’s infrastructure can support.

“At this point, testing all students, faculty and staff on a twice-a-week basis would represent more than half the total number of tests currently being done in the entire state of Michigan,” Schlissel and Collins said.

They said they will monitor frequent mass testing at other institutions and re-evaluate if the situation at U-M warrants it. Michigan Medicine is currently evaluating self-administered saliva and nasal swab testing, as developed by the University of Illinois and Yale, for potential implementation if the need arises.

With the density of students and staff below normal this fall — and with encouraging results from Michigan Medicine, the U-M research community and graduate and professional students over the summer — Schlissel and Collins said they are optimistic about a public-health informed semester.

Serology studies that test for antibodies have revealed rates of SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — in health-care workers lower than that found in many communities despite their high levels of exposure to COVID-19 patients.

Up to 7,000 people per day returned to campus for research, with only four documented cases of COVID-19 and no spread within facilities. More than 1,500 graduate and professional students live on campus and thousands more are pursuing their studies at U-M this summer with very low infection rates.

About 70 percent of credit hours for undergraduates will be taken fully remotely, with many hybrid courses offering the option to attend remotely as well. For those who do return to Ann Arbor, U-M has implemented a universal mask requirement, worked to reduce density in buildings and restricted seating in dining halls.

“There certainly is no way to completely eliminate personal risk, but we believe that by implementing a set of layered approaches, the campus will be able to serve its mission with approximately the same level of safety for employees that is involved when going to a supermarket, dining with your family outdoors on Main Street, or sitting in a backyard at a distance with friends,” Schlissel and Collins said.

“Campus experts and leaders will continue to track disease metrics on campus and in the surrounding area, our capacity to test and perform contact tracing, our quarantine space and the status of our health system and will pull back if the situation dictates.”