UNCW orders 100,000 Covid-19 rapid tests to kickstart new program

UNCW purchased 100,000 BinaxNow Covid-19 tests made by Abbott Labs, and expects to begin testing 6,500 students a week beginning Feb. 8. All students living on campus will be tested weekly, and off-campus students with in-person classes will be tested bi-weekly. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON — UNCW ordered 100,000 Covid-19 rapid tests to fuel a massive testing program, catering to all students who live or attend class on campus, a university spokesperson said Wednesday. 

Along with mandatory tests students received prior to their spring semester return, the “surveillance testingprogram is a new component of the university’s pandemic response. 

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Katrin Wesner-Harts, UNCW’s top health official, said these initiatives were not widely discussed at universities while administrations were preparing to open campuses in the fall. By the spring, after Covid-19 outbreaks marked campuses nationwide, re-entry testing and a set-in-stone process for testing students throughout the semester had become the norm, she said. 

“We want to make sure that we’re providing access to testing throughout this semester to a variety of people and not just those who think that they have been exposed to someone or are symptomatic,” Wesner-Harts said in a previous interview. “When we look at prevention, there’s no one single silver bullet. It’s a layering of things.” 

Read More: UNCW updates students, requires negative Covid-19 test as spring semester approaches

Starting Feb. 8, students who live on campus will be tested weekly. Off-campus students with in-person instruction on their schedules will be tested every other week. Around 3,480 students will live on campus this semester, according to the university, which is an occupancy rate of just below 73%.

UNCW will contact students via email to schedule testing appointments at either the Warwick Center or a site at the Student Recreation Center. Faculty, staff and university contractors are “strongly encouraged,” but not required, to participate too.

According to Wesner-Harts, UNCW expects to test 6,500 students per week. The 100,000-test order was for BinaxNow tests made by Abbott Labs. The tests will be delivered in three separate batches over the next few months, she said, and additional test products might also be used. On its website, the company says tests are sold for five dollars each. 

“The factors that influenced the selection include product availability and familiarity, ease of use, pricing, and compliance with applicable purchasing guidelines,” Wesner-Harts wrote in an emailed statement. 

According to a news report from CNBC, Abbott Labs invested heavily in its manufacturing capacity to supply tests to universities, pharmacies and other workplaces nationwide. The company filled an order from the federal government for 150 million BinaxNow tests in January. 

The test, which Abbott says is “the size of a credit card,” received an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration in December, and requires a prescription through an online service. 

An FDA document regarding the BinaxNow test says negative results “should be treated as presumptive.” Abbott’s product has a fast turnaround time for results and is an antigen test — which detects proteins from a virus particle. The other widely used type of Covid-19 test is the molecular test, which detects “genetic material or nucleic acid present inside a virus particle,” according to the FDA

Molecular tests often require a multiple day wait for results, but are generally more sensitive than molecular tests, according to the FDA. 

For the BinaxNow test, the FDA claims: “Negative results do not rule out SARS- CoV-2 infection and should not be used as the sole basis for treatment or patient management decisions, including infection control decisions.” 

Students with symptoms are asked to connect with the student health center for a Covid-19 test, rather than schedule an appointment through the surveillance testing program. At the beginning of the fall semester, many students seeking a Covid-19 test were asked to pay for it, but CARES Act funding made free testing available to all students through the student health center starting Sept. 1. 

Deep Dive: Emails show how UNCW leaders confronted pandemic challenges in semester’s pivotal early weeks

According to Mike Walker, UNCW dean of students, the student health center will alert his office when students queued up for the mandatory tests failed to show up. 

“At that point, the Office of the Dean of Students will communicate with the student(s) to further inquire as to why the student did not test,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “The campus conduct system will be used for any on-going non-compliance by students who are in categories required to test but do not complete the requirement.” 


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