Spring semester update

In preparation for the new semester, Carnegie Mellon University is ramping up its latest addition to its COVID safety measures, Tartan Testing, as President Jahanian announced in December.

“We remain committed to all of our previous pandemic safety practices and mitigation protocols,” said Daryl Weinert, chief of staff, vice president for strategic initiatives, and COVID-19 coordinator, in an email interview. He continued, “In addition, we have developed the high-volume Tartan COVID-19 Testing Laboratory (Tartan Testing), which will increase our asymptomatic testing capacity by a factor of 10.”

Weinert added, “Tartan Testing allows us to significantly expand our testing capacity to all Carnegie Mellon asymptomatic students, faculty and staff within the Pittsburgh area.”

Tartan Testing is based on the Yale School of Public Health’s SalivaDirect protocol, which does not require specialized equipment to detect RNA from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, utilizes saliva samples instead of nasal swabs, and yields results with comparable accuracy to the asymptomatic testing protocol using nasal swabs. The protocol site notes that saliva samples are easier to collect, but also may be difficult to work with. The FDA authorized SalivaDirect under an emergency use authorization for authorized laboratories to use.

Weinert stated in the email interview, “With regard to Tartan Testing, there are very specific regulations that the lab needs to be in compliance with — highly skilled staff were brought on board to assist both with this and the operations of the lab.” He continued, “We also have put much thought and effort into [ensuring] that the processes to schedule, register and provide a sample are as safe and efficient as we could make them.”

Weinert added, “This is the latest example of CMU leadership coming together to innovate and solve a pressing need for our community. The project involved over 100 people, both faculty and staff, working tirelessly over several months.”

With Tartan Testing, the university expects that — at full capacity — all faculty, staff, and students on campus will complete one asymptomatic test per week, as stated in an announcement in early January by Michael McQuade, vice president for research.

“Tartan Testing is the latest element of CMU’s ongoing strategy to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our community, it is not meant to be a panacea,” Weinert said in the email interview. He continued, “It is important to remember that any test only provides a snapshot of the moment at which the test is taken, so it is critical that we remain committed to our COVID mitigation behaviors.”

At the start of the fall semester, PCR tests were administered to residential students and off-campus students prior to the start of on-campus classes and activities. During last semester, random samples of students interacting on-campus were invited to participate in asymptomatic testing. Asymptomatic testing was also offered prior to Thanksgiving and winter breaks.

“When CMU finally announced an asymptomatic testing strategy for the fall semester, I was shocked to see that the plan was to select just a few hundred students each week to test, considering that peer institutions were doing as much as testing their entire student body twice a week,” said sophomore Aneesha Sampath.

Sampath continued, “The new Tartan Testing strategy is a step in the right direction. This will make the campus safer next semester, as hopefully more positive cases will be caught before they have spread too far. It’s hard to tell how responsible students were in the fall semester given the infrequent testing, but, given the new strategy, if students can remain cautious, CMU could finish the entire spring semester in the hybrid format.”

Many of last semester’s mitigation strategies will be maintained for the new semester. As stated in “A Tartan’s Responsibility,” students are expected to quarantine for a minimum of 14 days prior to returning to campus and complete pre-arrival safety and prevention training. The university also expects students to maintain social distancing, wear facial coverings, reduce the size of gatherings, practice good hygiene, and follow the university’s directions regarding travel. Other rules in “A Tartan's Responsibility” include complying with testing and contact tracing protocols and completing the daily self-assessment survey.

Tartan Testing is currently in a “ramp-up” period until the end of January, with an increasing number of students, faculty, and staff being invited to take part via email. People are able to sign up for a weekly appointment via the HealthConnect portal after receiving an email invitation. Participants check in for the test at Danforth Lounge in the Cohon University Center, and the Tartan COVID-19 Testing Lab will process the sample in-house. Results are expected to be returned within 2-3 business days.

“Our biggest challenge is keeping our community engaged to continue acting responsibly for their fellow community members,” Weinert said. He repeated, “It’s understandable to experience ‘pandemic fatigue’ and to let your guard down. However, it’s imperative for all of our community members to remain vigilant.”