A new University of Montana asymptomatic testing initiative several months in the making is slated to come to fruition this week with the help of student volunteers.

Testing Graphic

 Since the spring, a collaboration of University staff and faculty have been developing a sentinel testing program − form of asymptomatic testing that collects samples from segments of the campus community that are more likely to be in frequent close contact with others. Student volunteers from the new COVID-19-concentrated Griz Health program will guide participating individuals through the self-administered tests, which will be conducted in the UM Health and Medicine office in the University Center.

 

 According to a member of the cohort presenting the sentinel testing, UM’s Vice President of Research and Creative Scholarship Scott Whittenburg, the program could potentially launch as soon as Aug. 28.  

 “This is about identifying potential places in which the COVID could more easily spread and trying to minimize that spread and stopping it before it happens. This is all about keeping campus open,” Whittenburg said, adding that this program could be the difference between returning to remote classes and remaining on campus. 

 Portions of the campus community that come into close contact with others often, such as sororities and fraternities, athletes and on-campus residents, will potentially be offered optional testing opportunities. It has not yet been determined who will select groups to be tested.  

 According to Whittenburg, this form of testing serves as somewhat of a canary in the coal mine, an early indication of potential community transmission within certain groups. Red flags raised by the sentinel testing will allow the University to proactively focus more attention on the group in question and implement further precautions as needed.

 In order to conduct as many tests as possible while maintaining frugality with limited resources, this sentinel testing model will employ a pooling method, where 10 individual samples will be grouped and processed as one test. Each sample will be included in more than one group so the results can later be cross-referenced in order to identify “likely positives.” Individuals identified as likely positives will then be referred to the Curry Health Center for symptomatic testing.

 Gold Moua, a junior studying human biology on a pre-med track, is a Griz Health volunteer. Moua believes that Griz Health and the sentinel testing is a valuable resource in the effort to keep campus safe and open.

 “I just know that college students are very subjective people,” she said. “Sometimes, you might be feeling really sick, but you don’t want to admit it or you can’t really tell.”  

 While gesturing up and down her entire body, Moua said that volunteers will be equipped with layers of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)  and special training at the testing site. 

 UM Health and Medicine coordinator Lily Apedaile said that by including Griz Health volunteers, many of whom are students interested in or studying health professions, the sentinel testing not only provides an important service to the UM community, but also benefits Griz Health volunteers.

 “It allows them to get the training that most of them can’t get right now with the health care facilities shut down to any outside visitors coming in,” she said. 

Griz Health has nearly 50 undergraduate and graduate volunteers.

 “A lot of them, they really believe in the cause of trying to keep campus as healthy and open as possible,” Apedaile added.

 Whittenburg said the sentinel testing initiative was born out of research-oriented staff and faculty wanting to support UM during a tumultuous time.

 “They knew they had the instruments; they knew they had some level of expertise, and [they] were saying ‘We should be able to help in some fashion,’” Whittenburg said. 

 

The approximately 10 members of what Whittenburg refers to as “the testing group” come from colleges and departments across the University, from the Flathead Biological Station to the Genomics Core Laboratory.   

 So far, funding and resources have mostly been funneled through Whittenburg’s office, but the goal is to obtain further funding from the $4.8 million in federal aid allocated to the University from the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education for the Montana University System. Each test costs about $10 to complete. The amount of tests completed will depend on how much funding the project is awarded.

 The initiative is currently undergoing the process of obtaining Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) certification, which requires the creation of a new lab for processing samples that will be up to legal standards. 

Following the sentinel testing program’s release, chosen groups will be notified that the testing will be available to them and can schedule a testing time. Whittenburg said from the time of sample collection, results should be available within 24 hours.