Dear Mason Nation:
Fall 2020 is officially underway, and George Mason University is marking a transition in our efforts to stay ahead of the pandemic. Now that we are starting a mix of online and on-campus operations, I am writing to walk you through some of the new measures that will begin with the start of classes.
Starting with good news
From the time students began returning to our residence halls more than a week ago, the entire Mason community has taken our many required precautions very seriously. That is one reason why, so far, we are not experiencing many of the challenges that other universities have with reopening. A weekend article in The Washington Post gave a detailed account of our efforts to date. Keep up the great work, Patriots! This does not mean we will not have cases or will not to make adjustments in the future.
Staying the course
If you are familiar with our Safe Return to Campus plan, you know that the beginning of the school year means widening our focus from minimizing risk of the virus entering campus to also maximizing efforts to detect its presence and stop its spread if detected. Here is what to expect:
- More testing of residential students, sooner – We will begin testing students living in residence halls this week – ahead of schedule. We will start with 320, or 10 percent of the residential population. Students will continue to be furnished self-administered specimen collection kits, and sample collection will now be under the guidance of trained observers.
- More testing of faculty, staff, and off-campus students – We will also begin surveillance testing up to an estimated 800 faculty, staff, and students this week, also a week ahead of schedule. Tests will be offered in the garage of the Ángel Cabrera Global Center, where we will continue to conduct weekly randomized surveillance tests for the rest of the semester. While that was always part of our randomized surveillance testing plan, we are making arrangements to conduct these tests sooner.
- Enhanced reporting of pandemic conditions – We are debuting a dashboard of Mason public health conditions that anyone can follow.
- Restrictions on off-campus gatherings – Students are not permitted to engage in gatherings of more than 10 people off campus, and even for gatherings of 10 or less they should observe appropriate social distancing and hygiene at all times. Students found to have violated these restrictions will be required to stay off campus for 14 days and may be subject to student disciplinary actions.
Update on questions about self-administered test kits
Over the summer, we developed testing procedures under the guidance of a working group of Mason health and science faculty, physicians and administrative faculty with robust scientific and clinical expertise, along with input from senior leadership. This week we asked members of the team who have relevant scientific expertise to reevaluate the validity of test results attained from self-collected test specimens, rather than those collected by medical professionals.
Our faculty spoke to their scientific counterparts at Opteo Laboratory, where specimens from our self-administered test kits have been sent. Mason’s own faculty has confirmed that the process we have followed is scientifically valid. The type of test we are using, PCR testing, is the most accurate available. The process used to analyze specimens is FDA-approved. And the laboratories used all have the critical certification from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services known as CLIA. Whether the samples were self-collected or obtained by a trained third party does not affect the validity of testing process used by Opteo. We do admit that there could be some challenges with any point-in-time test administered using this approach, which is why we have opted for enhanced frequency of testing from multiple sources, laboratories, and methodologies.
Frequency of testing is key
We are guided by the public health principle that point-in-time testing alone will not give us adequate understanding of the spread of COVID-19. To adequately track the spread of the virus, our community needs to undergo frequent rounds of testing, and test results need to be available quickly. This is our approach. The tests in question represent just the first of many rounds of tests that we are planning, and that first round of testing has now wrapped up.
Moving forward, as we make limited use of self-administered testing kits for students living on campus, we will take the added precaution of having trained professionals observe and guide the self-collection of test samples. In addition, we will use multiple laboratories to process COVID-19 tests in order to minimize the risk of a single laboratory having a process failure that could delay rapid results.
We recognize that a handful of Mason faculty and students have voiced their objections to this process, and that this answer may not be satisfying to them. We have heard you, and as a result we investigated your concerns promptly, and in good faith. Having received confirmation from our own faculty whose expertise is relevant to these matters that the specimens students submitted to the FDA-certified laboratory produced scientifically valid results, we are moving forward with our processes. We hope that you recognize that in this time of crisis there are real limitations to the availability of tests (with timely results) and that we have a process that is based on the best science available. We encourage the faculty in question to engage their fellow faculty involved in the development and analysis of this process and accept their evaluation, as we have, as they are the experts in these matters.
Preparing for COVID-19 cases at Mason
Mason is a university of nearly 39,000 students, 3,200 of whom live on campus, and 11,000 faculty and staff. The prevailing rate of positive tests in Fairfax, Arlington, and Prince William Counties ranges between 4 and 8 percent of those tested – so we must expect that there will be positive cases of coronavirus among our ranks. We will report cases as we learn of them, and with the hard work of our community, we hope to keep the positivity rate low and stable and our disease prevalence below the prevailing rate in Fairfax, Arlington, and Prince William Counties.
While we find ourselves with no perfect solution to this pandemic, I am heartened by the serious-minded faculty who are offering so much critical guidance, to us and to the nation, as well a community of faculty, staff, and students who are determined to do what it takes to keep the virus at bay.