The North Dakota University System is planning to hold 34 mass COVID-19 testing events across the state in the coming weeks as it aims to reach a goal of testing every student, faculty and staff member before the school year kicks off at the end of August.

System leaders spoke about the plan, which they have been talking about for weeks without heavy details, during the Legislature’s Interim Higher Education Committee meeting on Tuesday, July 14.

Joshua Wynne, head of the system’s Smart Restart Task Force and dean of the UND medical school, said he believes the system will “now be able to welcome students back to campus in just a few weeks and, to do so, in a safe manner as possible.”

“Testing … is an essential component of making the campuses as safe as we can, along with the other factors of personal hygiene, physical distancing and so forth,” he said.

Vern Dosch, North Dakota’s contact-tracing facilitator, broke the testing plan down into three sections.

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First would be mass, widespread testing in mid-August in cities across the state. That would, ideally, occur before students arrive on campus, Dosch said. The free testing would not be mandatory, but highly encouraged.

Dosch said they want to make the testing as accessible as possible. Students can attend any event across the state.

The plan also includes recurring testing throughout the semester. How often students are tested would depend on the campus and how the virus is affecting communities at that time.

Additionally, there would be plans to do more targeted testing of certain groups, such as athletes.

Contact tracing is an important component to the plan, Dosch noted. If a student were to test positive, there is a database – with class and dorm info – for health officials to use to know what students and employees were potentially exposed to the virus.

The system and schools would consider how to improve the process further in the spring semester, Dosch said.

Worth it?

The state lab has a capacity of around 5,000 tests each day; most are consumed by the state’s community coronavirus testing events. Arranging days to do the testing events, while also not overwhelming the state lab, was a big challenge, Dosch said.

Another logistical challenge includes staffing the 34 testing events. The North Dakota National Guard has been conducting the testing events around the state, but committee member Sen. Brad Bekkedahl, R-Williston, said the Guard has been overwhelmed in recent months.

“We’re pretty spread thin right now,” said Bekkedahl, a National Guard colonel, adding that the system may need more civilian help to make this plan happen.

Dosch said this will be the system’s biggest challenge. Testing events require 80 to 100 staff members for 1,500 tests. The testing events around the state have been staffed by local and state health officials and National Guard members. Police and fire departments also provide support.

Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, wondered, due to the amount of resources it would take, whether the mass testing would be worthwhile because the campuses are not closed. Students can go out into the community and potentially be exposed elsewhere.

“I’m trying to understand the logic about how that can give a sense of assuredness that this is going to prevent the spread of COVID, when the negative test is good until the next day,” said Becker, adding that, in order to truly know the state of the virus on a campus, testing would have to be done on a weekly basis.

Chancellor Mark Hagerott said that was debated several times by the task force.

“It’s like a war of attrition,” Hagerott said. “People will get sick, it will happen. … The whole idea is if you look at COVID as an enemy, you stop maybe 90% of it getting here if these students will get tested. If they’re positive, (they should) stay at home in their home. … We think it knocks down the number significantly instead of just having 35,000 young people come pouring into campus with no pre-screening. So you’re correct, but I think it gets us closer to a battle we can win.”

Doing the initial testing alone would not be enough, according to Wynne, who said recurring testing will be essential. Doing the testing at the beginning of the semester also will help identify where the virus is coming from, as many students do not live in the communities where they attend school.

Another question: Who pays for it?

Sen. Larry Robinson, D-Valley City, questioned Wynne about the cost of the initial and subsequent testing, noting that the testing “could get to be real expensive and fast.”

Wynne said the testing would be covered through CARES Act funding through the end of the year. How the system and universities would pay for testing after that has not been determined. The total cost of the testing is still unknown. State Board Chairman Nick Hacker told the Grand Forks Herald that the costs would be “in the millions.”

Hagerott thanked the Legislature for its support in approving CARES Act dollars for the system. The system was approved for $44.4 million in funding in June. He noted that the system is ready to provide an on-premise option for students, acknowledging some students with medical conditions may not be comfortable with returning to campus this fall.

The 11 universities in the system are planning to offer a hybrid model of learning to students, with some courses in-person and some online.

The Smart Restart Task Force has been working since May to coordinate plans to bring students back to campus in the fall.