The behind-the-scenes aspect of the university’s COVID-19 testing apparatus was set up in just 11 days in July, Morgen Bergman, the university’s liaison to the Broad Institute and Assistant Provost of Strategic Initiatives, said in a phone interview with The Brandeis Hoot. The Broad Institute processes between 1400 and 1600 tests per day for Brandeis, and approximately seven percent of all tests administered in the U.S. every day, which is around 200,000 tests a day as of Jan. 25, according to Bergman.
Since the end of the summer and the resumption of campus life, all residential students and faculty, staff and commuter students that are on campus more than three times a week are required to be tested twice a week, all of which are rapidly processed and tested by the Broad Institute and communicated back to the subject, as well as the campus’ contact tracing team. This ability to frequently, quickly and reliably test members of the Brandeis community that come to campus often is essential to the university’s strategy to safely bring students back to campus and maintain limited on-campus activities until herd immunity is achieved and the danger of the pandemic has passed, according to the university’s COVID-19 strategy.
While the university also mandates the conventional measures for preventing transmission, such as mask wearing, social distancing and restrictions on gathering size, testing is a crucial second level response to plug the inevitable leaks in that system and prevent any on-campus outbreaks from spreading too far. If a case can be detected early and isolated, alongside all of their close contacts, then students should be able to live on campus and attend class in relative safety. Writing in The Atlantic, Indiana University School of Medicine Professor Aaron Carroll talked about the success of such methods not only for keeping universities operating but as a model for society at large for how to not just contain but suppress the virus.
And indeed, according to the university’s COVID Dashboard, Brandeis has maintained a significantly lower positivity rate than other Massachusetts universities, and an even lower rate than the state as a whole. Most of the people being tested, however, are likely unfamiliar with the system behind “a crucial part of our campus health and safety operations,” according to the university’s testing website.
The relationship between Brandeis and the Broad Institute began in June 2020, when Bergman said that a representative of the Broad Institute put on a webinar about their “Safe for Schools Program.” While there were some other organizations offering testing services, they could not, she said, guarantee a 24 to 48 hour turnaround time. The Broad Institute, she said, has consistently returned tests within 24 hours other than the end of the fall semester and the beginning of the spring semester, when she said it was closer to 28. According to Bergman, the current average turnaround time is 10.6 hours. Bergman also said that the university had briefly considered attempting to start its own testing program, but quickly realized that it was not capable of running such an operation, and so it agreed to work with the Broad Institute.
On July 3, Bergman said that the university formally signed a contract with the Broad Institute, and, on July 14, it administered its first test. “I did it in eleven days including weekends and holidays; it was a very busy time,” Bergman explained about intervening time and the process of setting the system up in an interview with The Hoot. She added that in the early days the university had to use a student courier until the Broad Institute could provide a proper courier. Despite the challenges and hard work, Bergman said, “it was fun doing something so innovative and helping Brandeis.”
The Broad Institute was also new to the COVID-19 testing business, said Bergman, who characterized its approach to getting the program off the ground as “a startup mentality,” and said that she “cannot speak highly enough” about the people there and their willingness to solve problems, citing many 2 a.m. phone calls.
Once tests have been collected, Bergman said, they are taken to Cambridge by the courier twice a day, at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. From there, each sample is tested individually; Bergman made it clear that the Broad Institute does not employ the batch testing method wherein samples are pooled and testing is repeated individually if traces of the virus are detected in the pool. From there, the results are given to the medical provider, who notifies the test subjects of their results and ensures that any tests not processed (TNPs) are retaken, and that any positive tests are passed on to the students and the contact tracers.
Additionally, Bergman told The Hoot, the Broad Institute supplies the university with swabs, tubes, labels, printers and cryogenic boxes, all of which are included with the university’s contract. The supplies are delivered as needed.
According to further reporting by The New York Times, each test from the Broad Institute costs $25, a cost which The Times characterizes as being one of the less expensive mass tests available to universities. Bergman confirmed that the tests do in fact cost $25 but said that the benefits are worth the cost. As of press time, the university has spent over $3.2 million on tests, based on the number of tests collected, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard. She added that Brandeis is putting its money where its mouth is to keep students safe from the virus, saying, “We are stopping the pandemic.”