Getting off-campus COVID-19 tests often easier and faster, University of Michigan students say

ANN ARBOR, MI — The number of coronavirus cases at the University of Michigan has increased in recent weeks, and a majority of students with positive cases have chosen to get tested off campus.

It’s simpler, faster and more convenient than being tested at University Health Services, some students said.

UM updated its dashboard in late September to reflect the number of positive cases tested outside the university. Since Sept. 13, there have been 607 positive cases in the UM community with 409 of these positive cases being tested off campus.

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A majority of positive cases since Sept. 13 were from tests done outside UM facilities, according to data on the dashboard, and students say they have had differing experiences trying to get tested at UHS.

Students can contact UHS to get tested in a number of ways, said Andie Ransom, co-lead for UHS’ COVID-19 planning and response. The most popular is an online questionnaire, which UHS employees respond to and give students a call to assess them over the phone, taking into account whether they sound sick, if they’re coughing or short of breath or talking in full sentences.

From there, UHS determines whether the student needs to go to the UHS clinic or get a COVID-19 test at the Power Center, which the university has been using as a testing site since August, Ransom said.

For some students, like Ollie Paulus, a sophomore from Huntsville, Alabama, getting a COVID-19 test using the questionnaire was easy. However, others, like Katie Furman, a Ph.D. student from New Jersey, experienced long wait times after submitting the questionnaire.

Furman had a headache, cough and shortness of breath the morning of Oct. 5, she said, prompting her to promptly submit the questionnaire. She said she didn’t hear from UHS until she called again around 3:30 p.m. and was told UHS had to look at her responses and symptoms to see if she qualified for a test.

This confused Furman, she said, since she was certain she was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

“While I was on the phone, I was just sort of asking those questions, like, what is it that does or doesn’t make me qualify for testing?” Furman said. “She said, ‘That’s up to the COVID-19 team to decide.’”

Furman, who has asthma but hadn’t used her inhaler since high school, said she told UHS this and was told asthma couldn’t be ruled out as a reason for her shortness of breath. She got an appointment with a UHS doctor later that day to discuss her asthma, and after taking her vitals and waiting about 45 minutes for a doctor to assess her, Furman said she told the doctor her symptoms and was given a COVID-19 test.

The doctor never discussed her asthma symptoms with her, Furman said, and her COVID-19 results came back negative on Oct. 6. Furman said her experience felt disorganized, especially since the university has had time to prepare for this.

If she had to do it again, Furman said she would have gone to an off-campus testing site because the process would have been faster, and she would have been more comfortable with how her results were handled.

“All of this, I would have excused in late March or early April, but we’ve had this for months,” Furman said. “It just all felt extremely disorganized, and people clearly weren’t talking to each other about what’s going on with individual patients.”

On the flip side, Paulus said they heard stories about issues with testing and appointments, but that wasn’t true in their case. Paulus submitted the questionnaire after business hours and got a call from UHS the next day to schedule a test. Paulus was in and out in 10 minutes and got a negative COVID-19 test result less than 24 hours later, they said.

The experience was largely positive, Paulus said, but they were fearful they would be denied a test or not hear back from UHS since infrequent coughs were their only symptom.

“I wish there was more clarity on the questionnaire about who they’ll accept, and what to do if they don’t accept you, like where to get tested if you don’t qualify for some of the local places that require you to be a Michigan resident,” Paulus said.

Testing is increasing at UM, with approximately 2,034 tests being done this week, according to its COVID-19 dashboard.

Ransom understands off-campus testing might be more convenient for students, but she said she’s certain UHS offers a better test experience with more reliable results, as opposed to rapid tests some outside sources offer.

Big hurdles UHS is working through are students being afraid to get tested at UHS, thinking they will be moved to quarantine or isolation housing, or thinking that UHS will alert the authorities if they had a party over the weekend, Ransom said. Neither case is true, Ransom said.

“We’re medical providers, we’re here to help,” Ransom said. “We do not force anyone into quarantine or isolation housing, that’s not something we’re doing. We just want to make sure that you have a safe space to quarantine and isolate during the COVID-19 (testing) process.”

There is one final button at the end of the survey that students sometime miss, Ransom said. It records their answer, but if it’s not a final answer – which is what the button is used for – it delays the survey for about four hours, Ransom said. UHS is currently building ways to catch those surveys that missed the final button to get to them faster, Ransom, said.

UHS has also implemented its second version of the survey that is sent to UHS in real time for students who have a patient portal account, Ransom said.

“It takes this little bit of delay that happens with the outside survey company and just cuts that down,” Ransom said. “I used it yesterday with students and it was great.”

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