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Education

Many St. Louis-Area Colleges Won’t Have Capacity For On-Campus Coronavirus Testing

Harris-Stowe State University is one of 13 four-year public universities in the state and receives the least amount of state appropriations.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Harris-Stowe State University is one of the college campuses in the region that does not have capacity to test students for the coronavirus.

As coronavirus cases surge around the country, St. Louis-area universities are planning to welcome students back to campus in August. But many will not be testing students for the coronavirus this fall. 

Fontbonne University, Harris-Stowe State University, Lindenwood University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis said they do not have the capacity to provide coronavirus tests. Instead, those colleges have partnered with local health departments for contact tracing and plan to send students to free testing centers, if they show symptoms of COVID-19. 

Few universities in the region say they will be ready to test students for the coronavirus on campus this fall. St. Louis University and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville both plan to use their on-campus health centers as testing sites. Washington University plans to release reopening guidelines, which include plans for testing, on July 31. 

Universities are racing to prepare for how students can safely return to campus next month. Administrators say soaring rates of new coronavirus cases have made planning for the fall semester exceptionally difficult. Over the past week, the St. Louis metro has averaged about 450 new reported cases a day. That’s nearly two times higher than the week before that.

The American College Health Association recommends that universities not conduct widespread testing of symptom-free students, faculty and staff returning to campus. For people who do show symptoms, testing capacities vary for local colleges.

St. Louis University has a medical school and SIUE has a nursing school that have helped them prepare for testing on campus. But colleges without medical schools or hospital partnerships have fewer resources set up for large-scale testing, said Chris Sullivan, director of health services at UMSL.

“We know that it’s not enough to do a one-time ‘everybody gets tested the first day of classes’ and have that really mean very much, so just the resources necessary to do broadscale, repeated testing is just kind of beyond our abilities,” he said.

Sullivan said UMSL will rely on the St. Louis County Health Department and other free testing sites to provide students with tests. But recent reports of weekslong waiting times for coronavirus test results could make it harder to protect UMSL’s campus population, he said.

Lindenwood is preparing to provide telehealth visits for students who are experiencing coronavirus symptoms from its student health center operated by BJC Healthcare, a spokesperson said. 

Masks will be required on Harris-Stowe, Lindenwood, SLU, SIUE and UMSL campuses. Students, faculty and staff at those schools will be responsible for monitoring their temperatures daily. 

Administrators hope to limit the spread of the virus by ordering masks for students and employees. Campuses including Lindenwood, Harris-Stowe, UMSL and SLU have ordered thousands of reusable and disposable masks, many branded with school logos.

“We're really kind of taking the position that everyone needs to treat themselves as if they're an asymptomatic carrier,” Sullivan said.

Universities are a month away from classes beginning and are still estimating how many students will return to campus, a key statistic for preparing to provide enough testing capacity for their students and staff.

About 14,000 students attend SIUE’s campus during a typical semester, but only around 60% are expected to return in August for in-person instruction.

Students at SIUE will need health insurance to pay for an on-campus coronavirus test. Those without insurance must pay out of pocket, which costs $100. 

Rich Walker, the university’s vice chancellor for administration, said he doesn’t want to see students pay for testing. He said the university would drive students to a nearby free testing site. 

“If a student needs to get tested, we will get them tested,” he said.

The Madison County Health Department is providing SIUE testing supplies. Walker said the students should receive results from those tests within three days. 

Student athletes and students working in health care fields at SIUE are required to get tested when the fall semester starts. For all other students, testing is optional. 

Administrators emphasized that all current plans for students to return to campus could change by the start of the semester.

“It feels like we are reinventing the university every couple of months,” Walker said. 

For now, a majority of St. Louis-area universities are planning both online and in-person classes for this fall. 

Editor's note: St. Louis Public Radio is a community service of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The station and its newsroom are editorially independent.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake 

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