Dear Fellow Patriots:
We are off to a very successful start to this extraordinary academic year, and the success is because of you. Thank you for doing your part to keep George Mason University open and functioning safely.
It has not been easy, but together we have kept Mason’s reported cases of coronavirus to the lowest of any large Virginia universities, which prompted the Richmond Times-Dispatch recently to say this: “Among large universities in the state, if there’s a winner so far, it’s George Mason University. The Fairfax County college was the largest in the state last year with 37,000 students. On Friday (9/4), it reported 22 total positive cases among students, faculty and staff.”
We have accomplished this by a multi-pronged approach that has included pretesting of students living in our residence halls before they arrived on campus, ongoing surveillance testing of students and employees, diagnostic testing for students who may be sick, optional robotic food delivery, management of congregate activity both on campus and in partnership with our local community, and of course the active participation of students, faculty, and staff in our Mason COVID Health √TM, and all of us taking necessary precautions very seriously.
We have another hurdle to clear in our quest to keep our campuses open as safely as possible: the Labor Day holiday. Last weekend many of our students living on campus returned home for a well-earned long weekend. A handful of others, we have learned, likely participated in off-campus parties that violated our ban on large, congregate gatherings. In doing so, they may have inadvertently brought the coronavirus back to campus with them.
In order to continue to minimize our collective health risks, next week Mason will require all 3,000 students living in residence halls to take COVID-19 tests – approximately 1,000 per day over three days. In addition, we will increase our ongoing surveillance testing of off-campus students and employees at the Ángel Cabrera Global Center. And we will continue diagnostic testing of anyone who feels sick or has come into close contact with someone who tested positive.
With these tests, we will learn what impact students going home or attending holiday weekend parties have on the spread of the virus. This will be valuable in preparing for future holiday weekends.
The kits used for this surge testing will be a new kind for us: non-invasive tests of saliva samples that do not involve health professionals to collect. These tests are approved by the FDA as well as our own science faculty and on-campus public health leaders, and are commonly used at other universities. While these are self-administered, all students will have access to a telehealth expert to assist with the test, and we are strongly urging students to take advantage of this service. The tests will be rapidly analyzed by Rutgers University’s Infinite Biologics laboratory. This method gives us the capacity to conduct a large-scale rapid screening of a target population that the standard test method cannot accomplish.
Looking forward, I urge you to keep two things in mind:
- Given the behavior listed above, and our subsequent increased testing in response to it, there could be a rise in positive tests detected. If this occurs, I urge you not to view it as a failure of our campus safety precautions, but rather as a successful testing campaign. In the event that we do detect more students carrying the coronavirus, we are prepared to take all the precautionary steps in keeping with public health guidelines.
- This does not replace our randomized surveillance testing that we need everyone to participate in when requested to do so. Surveillance testing is a vital tool we are using to detect the presence of the virus among those of us who are asymptomatic.
- The random surveillance tests at the Global Center are administered by health professionals and they are only minimally invasive – the swabs used do not go more than a half-inch into your nostrils. Here is a video that demonstrates how the new test works.
We have a long way to go to get through this semester with minimal disruptions, and it is important to remember that conditions can change rapidly and substantially. We all want to maintain the outstanding track record we have established in the opening weeks of this semester, so we will continue to aggressively pursue promising options to minimize the spread of the coronavirus while maximizing our ability to deliver on our educational mission, uninterrupted.
Keep up the great work, Patriots. Together, we can do this.