Queen’s must provide COVID-19 testing for students living off-campus

Proactive testing is needed to protect students living in high-density households

Hilary believes Queen’s should increase testing accessibility to prevent large-scale outbreaks.
Supplied by Hilary Fotheringham

As COVID-19 variants continue to become more transmissible, it’s more important than ever for the Queen’s community to take all possible steps to mitigate exposures and avoidable transmissions.

The Omicron variant has caused significant anxiety for students living off-campus. The increased risk of transmissibility in high-density housing has created cause for concern—some students live in houses with up to seven housemates.

With COVID tests being inaccessible, some students have no means to determine their COVID-19 status. Providing constant rapid antigen kits and increasing general testing accessibility is necessary to support student living at Queen’s.

Since Health Canada approved rapid antigen testing for COVID-19 in October 2020, rapid tests have become commonplace in many communities. However, at times of drastic case increase in hotspot regions, rapid tests have become coveted commodities.

Prior to this, the recommendation for symptomatic individuals was to seek out a PCR test, which is considered to be the “gold standard” of COVID testing. However, with cases rapidly rising due to the Omicron variant, Ontario’s labs saw significant backlogs.

With rapid antigen testing, people were able to get their results within 20 minutes instead of two to three days, and they could start their isolations earlier rather than later into their infectious periods.

The spike of Omicron cases in Ontario came in early December, which subsequently led to Queen’s canceling on-campus activities—including in-person exams—to reduce exposure.

The situation generated much anxiety on campus, as much of the student population hurried to get tested before rushing home to their families. 

The high demand placed further strain on the already weak COVID-testing system at Queen’s. Access to PCR testing was already limited, with no opened locations on campus and the closest site being a drive away.

PCR testing was only open to those who had been identified as high-risk contacts by KFL&A Public Health or were symptomatic. The satellite COVID-19 assessment center in Mitchell Hall, which had been opened in September 2020, failed to reopen until cases reached a peak, which was far too late.

For students living on or near campus, access to COVID testing is limited. Additionally, wait times on the return of test results make it more likely for those with positive cases to spend time in their communities before knowing that they have COVID-19.

When Queen’s finally began to distribute rapid antigen tests, kits were limited and the distribution of them was simply too late for much of the student population. Many had already gone home, uninformed of their COVID-19 status, to potentially vulnerable family members. Others had already sequestered themselves in their student homes, unaware of the infection status of their housemates.

While I was back home in Halifax over the holiday, I noticed rapid antigen tests on Dalhousie University’s campus were widely accessible. This was in stark contrast to the situation at Queen’s.

At Dalhousie, testing kits are distributed at several campus locations, in addition to two established testing centers on campus. These measures weren’t just activated during case spikes but have remained in place consistently since the university’s reopening in September 2021.

As a result, Dalhousie saw a much smaller spike in cases in early December, despite having a comparable student population to Queen’s.

Students are bound to attend gatherings, whether it be a class, eating at a restaurant, or spending time with friends.

Due to the high transmissibility of new variants, we won’t always know the risk we’re putting ourselves at and who among us may currently have COVID-19.

This ever-present uncertainty keeps us inside to an extent that can be detrimental to both student wellbeing and productivity.

To protect those of us living in student housing from contracting COVID-19, the solution appears to be simple—having ample access to rapid antigen testing.

Dalhousie provides a model for what I hope testing accessibility at Queen’s could evolve into.

The comparison between the two university’s reactions also leads one to wonder why cases at Queen’s have to jump in order for preventative testing measures to be made available.

To ensure positive cases are contained, it’s imperative Queen’s places emphasis on consistent testing access through both on-campus testing centers and increased take-home rapid test distribution at various sites across the university to reach a greater number of students.

The student population living off-campus represents a particularly high-risk group when it comes to COVID-19 transmission probability due to the prevalence of high-density living spaces. To effectively reduce anxieties and create safe household environments, it’s important that COVID testing resources be accessible to this population.

With this change, students can feel more at ease engaging in their personal, social, academic, or athletic activities and living in their shared houses aware of their COVID-19 status.

The presence of dependable testing infrastructure on campus will allow students to test proactively instead of reactively. Those living with others in the student housing district would be able to routinely get tested and ensure there’s less risk of transmission to their housemates after attending class, socializing with friends, or participating in a team practice.

Accessible rapid testing for the student population would also decrease the likelihood of housemates heading home to vulnerable parents, grandparents, or siblings while being unknowingly infected.

As we learn to live with COVID-19 in our community, we must become proactive instead of reactive when facing the uncertainties and unknowns that come with the pandemic.

Hilary is a second-year Health Sciences student.

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