Two years of NU COVID-19 testing requirements and dwindling enforcement


Daily file photo by Angeli Mittal

Testing requirements have been prevalent since the students were allowed back on campus last year. Their enforcement, however, has been spotty.

Angeli Mittal, Creative Director

Since students were allowed to return to campus in winter 2021, Northwestern has implemented a series of testing requirements which have changed according to the public health landscape and national guidance.

Last year, NU was adamant about community adherence to these protocols — with third-party reminders and then-Northwestern University Health Services emails to those who missed testing. University spokesperson Erin Karter wrote in an email to The Daily that the University, as well as schools and units, sent testing reminders when deemed necessary.

With greater community vaccination because of the Fall Quarter requirements — as 98% of the NU community has received two doses and 90 to 93% of students have received a booster shot — these consistent testing reminders seem to have relaxed. 

For fully-vaccinated individuals who have received a booster shot, if eligible, there’s no testing requirement for Spring Quarter. Yet NU continues to mandate arrival testing at the start of each quarter, which McCormick sophomore Emma Jackson said it should continue to do.

“If it’s more like a testing encouragement, I think students will not get tested,” she said. “Just because restrictions for COVID are being lifted doesn’t mean we can just completely forget about testing at all.”

Last year, after missing some of the twice-weekly tests required of undergraduates, Jackson said she received email reminders from the University. 

At the start of Winter Quarter 2021, students were required to complete three PCR tests with the University’s partner, Color, upon arrival. About 7,500 tests were conducted during each of the first three weeks of January 2021, reflecting these requirements and the decreased numbers of students on campus with most classes still exclusively virtual.

Starting February 22, 2021, students were asked to complete two antigen tests with the University’s new partner Abbott. As a result, the anticipated updated testing requirements of one PCR and one antigen test was postponed by a week due to shipping delays of Color tests. This updated policy took effect from March 1, 2021 to May 12, 2021. 

While the increased testing policies took effect for these 11 weeks, the University received an average of about 12,300 tests weekly, excluding Spring Break 2021.

From May 12, 2021 to the end of last Spring Quarter, students were required to complete two antigen tests weekly, though testing numbers declined. For the remaining four weeks of the quarter, the number of tests each undergraduate was expected to take remained the same. NU received an average of about 7,800 tests weekly — about two-thirds the number in the previous testing requirement period. 

As testing numbers dropped, the positivity rate also dropped to nearly 0% on campus.

Since summer 2021, only community members who were not yet fully vaccinated were required to receive COVID-19 antigen testing twice a week while on campus. With the introduction of COVID-19 booster shots, students who were eligible but had not received one by Jan. 30 were also required to partake in this testing. 

Classes resumed in-person modalities Fall Quarter 2021 — with more than 93% of undergraduate students demonstrating proof of vaccination by August 20, 2021 in accordance with University policy — and testing requirements relaxed. Since the start of the 2021-22 academic year, the number of COVID-19 tests received has typically ranged between 3,000 and 4,000.

The University has only required testing for all undergraduate students, regardless of vaccination status, upon re-entry to campus after breaks or during periods of high positive case detection.

Throughout the pandemic, students who tested positive for COVID-19 were also exempt from testing requirements for 90 days after their first positive test. In alignment with this policy, Karter wrote that more than 3,000 students were ineligible to complete entry testing requirements for Spring Quarter because of the spike of positive cases in January and February during the omicron wave.

While Karter said testing reminders are only sent when necessary, the University still tracks fulfillment of these requirements through daily analyses from on-site testing facilities and Northwestern Medicine. 

Those who deviate from community health protocols “may be referred” to the Office of Community Standards for disciplinary action, Karter said. In Winter Quarter 2021, Vice President for Operations Luke Figora wrote that students who missed two consecutive tests “will be referred” to OCS for disciplinary action.

McCormick junior John Jack Soler said he has heard from other students who have forgotten to participate in arrival testing and have not received any reminders. He said the change in University testing enforcement is valid given the prevalence of vaccines.

“Now with vaccines and boosters, people are a little more lackadaisical about (testing requirements),” Soler said. “People aren’t really living in Plex (or Hinman) for those long periods of time, and so there’s not really a reason to enforce it if people don’t really want to do it.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @amittal27

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