Allegheny to update COVID policy, move away from surveillance testing

Allegheny College is currently in the process of reviewing its COVID-19 policies for the spring 2023 semester. Rapid testing was a requirement as students returned from fall break in the fall 2022 semester, but a Friday, Jan. 6, email from Residence Life announced that testing would not be required following winter break. 

Associate Professor of Biology and Global Health Studies Becky Dawson believes this change is a cultural shift, rather than a policy shift, in light of ever-evolving COVID-19 research. Dawson explained that surveillance testing — or testing a community as a whole regardless of the presence of symptoms — has, in a way, become obsolete.

“When we all came back and we all went to Robertson in the fall of 2020, (rapid tests) were still really effective,” Dawson said. “But as the virus has mutated and evolved, the tests actually aren’t catching the asymptomatic cases.”

With a background in epidemiological studies, Dawson referenced research from the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America in an update she released to community members in December 2022. Citing SHEA in an email, Dawson wrote, “the use of asymptomatic screening is a unique yet resource-intensive tool that arguably has been overused.”

From here on, the solution Dawson sees is one that requires a cultural shift toward individual accountability. Testing is a part of that picture, but it is not the only system of personal accountability, she said.

“If I wake up tomorrow morning and I have a scratchy throat, I can test myself to see if that sore throat is COVID-19,” Dawson said. “But if it comes back negative, it could be a host of other things. The best thing that I can do for my students, for myself, is to stick a mask on.”

This system of accountability prioritizes big-picture community health over short-term priorities, like missing a few days of class.

“If we can stop those chains of transmission, trust each other and build this culture of protecting each other, that’s transformative,” Dawson said.

Vice President for Enrollment Management Ellen Johnson explained via email that Allegheny will be releasing its future COVID-19 policies in February, testing will still be available for students and masks are encouraged for those feeling unwell. These decisions, Johnson explained, “were made by the College leadership guided by the health expertise of (the Allegheny College Health Agency).”

She added that ACHA added a student representative this fall to “provide the student voice in discussions about our policies and procedures.”

Students should continue to mask when unwell, and are encouraged to test if they are experiencing COVID symptoms. Winslow Health Center offers rapid tests and is available for walk-ins or appointments Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.