Dear Patriot Nation:
Over the last week, some of our newest Patriots have been moving into their residence halls in preparation for Monday’s start of classes. Safety is on everyone’s mind especially with discouraging news coverage of the troubles some universities are having with their openings.
I am writing to give an overview of the steps we are taking to operate the university safely, and to address concerns we have heard about one step we have taken to safely welcome students back.
George Mason University’s Safe Return to Campus plan is comprehensive and flexible, with multiple layers of precautionary protocols built in. We meet the standards recommended by federal and state public health officials, and in some instances go beyond their recommendations.
Concerns about the home testing kits
Some students and faculty have questioned the validity and reliability of the initial at-home tests that we mailed to students prior to their arrival in residence halls. To those who have expressed their concerns I say that we hear you. I recognize that your concerns come from a genuine place of care for everyone’s wellbeing.
Unfortunately, inaccurate and incomplete information has begun to circulate about these tests. Specifically, objections have been voiced about the method of collecting specimens, the accuracy of the testing, and the legitimacy of the company we have used.
Specimen collection – Faculty have questioned the validity of home-collection kits, citing that these tests are not FDA-approved for “home use.” Correctly, they are not – but that is not what we are using them for. These kits do not contain the capacity to produce results, only to allow for specimen collection. And while a number of the collection tubes contained labels that said, “for research purposes only,” those are simply common labels that would have been a waste of time and materials to replace. Opteo Laboratory validates that these kits are approved for home specimen collection.
Accuracy of results – The test methodology employed is a polymerase chain reaction, aka PCR test, which is the most accurate test available. The US Centers for Disease Control describes PCR tests as having “high sensitivity and high specificity.” Specimens collected at home are shipped to a well-established, CLIA-certified laboratory for analysis, Opteo Laboratory. “CLIA” is a federal quality certification called for by the FDA that simply stands for “Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments.”
Validity of Kallaco – Many concerns have been raised about Kallaco, the go-between company we contracted with to quickly distribute home-collection kits to 3,000 students and assure specimens get to Opteo Laboratory for rapid analysis. Kallaco is indeed a new company, formed just earlier this year. They are NOT doing the test analysis – only the logistics work to move home collection kits and specimens from students to Opteo Laboratory as efficiently as possible – something that more established businesses said they could not do on the scale we needed.
Yes, Kallaco is new and untested. Many steps we are forced to take in the fight against COVID-19 are also new and untested, because the solutions we need simply did not exist when the pandemic hit. And the more established organizations simply could not pivot rapidly enough to meet our emerging needs on the timeline and scale we require.
Why even conduct the home-collection tests?
We chose to use this test method as an additional means of screening of students moving into our university’s residence halls, as the first of several steps we are taking to identify anyone who might unknowingly bring COVID-19 to campus.
Some other universities also have taken this supplemental step. On the other hand, many universities, even some in Virginia, are not requiring any pretesting for students to move into residence halls, and Mason is not required to do so. We wanted that extra measure in place as an added safeguard.
With thousands of students taking the test, this initial screen found a handful who tested positive, subsequently quarantined, and as a result they did not show up on campus to unknowingly spread the virus.
No perfect solution
Clearly, this is not a perfect solution. Perfection simply does not exist. We have no relevant precedent, and we are doing everything we can to safely operate this university while delivering the best educational experience possible. Faced with the choice of an imperfect solution that could give us an additional means of detecting the virus – or choosing not to even try pre-screening – we chose to act. And we chose the best solution available to us at the time.
Enhanced measures taking effect starting Monday
If you are familiar with our Safe Return to Campus plan, you know that the beginning of school year means shifting gears from minimizing risk of the virus entering campus to also maximizing efforts to detect its presence and stop its spread.
Out of an abundance of caution, and out of respect for the very real concerns we share about reentering campus in this moment of uncertainty, we are preparing to accelerate certain testing regimens starting this week. Specifically:
- More testing of residential students, sooner
- Accelerated testing of faculty, staff, and off-campus students
- Enhanced reporting of pandemic conditions
Watch for a more detailed letter from me in the coming days in which we offer more details about each of these accelerated testing processes, after we have been able to verify the specifics.
Finally, I offer a reminder: Today’s conditions may not be the same tomorrow, requiring us to respond quickly to volatile conditions. We are ready, and we are listening to you. I want to express my profound gratitude for the hard work that thousands of students, faculty, and staff have put into preparing for Fall 2020, a semester like no other.