Campus News

Surveillance testing up and running at UB

A student prepares to use a swab to collect a sample during surveillance COVID testing.

A student uses a swab to collect a saliva sample during surveillance testing in the Student Union. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published September 15, 2020

headshot of Joe Raab.
“Surveillance testing helps to provide us with an idea of the prevalence of COVID-19 in our UB community. That information will help us to track trends over time and look at how effective our control measures are. ”
Joseph Raab, director
Environment, Health and Safety

UB has launched surveillance testing for COVID-19, with the first testing site up and running in the Student Union on North Campus.

The program — a partnership with SUNY Upstate Medical University — will include multiple rounds of testing throughout the semester, with randomly selected UB students, faculty and staff invited to participate in each round. The goal is to test a total of 837 asymptomatic people in each round.

So far, the program has tested over 400 on-campus student residents, including students tested as part of a pilot on Sept. 4, and others tested last week as part of the first full-scale round of testing, says Joseph Raab, director of Environment, Health and Safety. Testing will continue this week with groups that include students who live off campus, and then faculty and staff.

“Surveillance testing helps to provide us with an idea of the prevalence of COVID-19 in our UB community,” Raab says. “That information will help us to track trends over time and look at how effective our control measures are. This testing is just one layer among many in UB’s efforts to monitor and respond to COVID-19.”

“Combined with evidence-based measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and symptom monitoring and reporting, surveillance testing will help us to understand the prevalence of asymptomatic individuals in our community,” says Jean Wactawski-Wende, dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions. “Surveillance testing focuses on individuals who are not showing symptoms and allows us to monitor trends over time. We will hope to determine whether prevalence is higher in certain groups of people. This will help us to inform our prevention strategies and adapt accordingly.”

With the North Campus test site running smoothly, UB plans to open additional surveillance testing locations this week in Harriman Hall on the South Campus and at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences downtown.

Watch for emails requesting your participation

Students, faculty and staff selected for surveillance testing will receive an email requesting their participation, with a link for registering online.

For those who receive an invitation, a high level of participation is important as part of UB’s efforts to protect the health of the UB community and the university’s neighbors in Western New York. The students sampled will include not only on-campus residents. Students who live off campus and have at least one in-person class will also be included, as well as students who live off campus in Erie and Niagara counties and are enrolled only in remote classes.

“Surveillance testing helps us protect public health by providing insight into the potential prevalence of disease among asymptomatic individuals,” says David Pawlowski, biosafety officer in Environment, Health and Safety, who helped to set up testing operations at UB. “Many teams across campus have come together to implement this testing program.”

“A number of the students have indicated that the sampling was very easy, and that they appreciated that the university was doing this type of surveillance testing,” Raab says. “The students who have come in have been understanding and cooperative, and we’ve been very impressed by our student body going through this process.”

Samples are combined into one testing pool.

Individual saliva samples are combined into one testing pool. Photo: Douglas Levere

A pooled testing method that samples saliva

The test is a saliva test that is very simple to collect. People need to avoid brushing their teeth or using mouthwash for three hours beforehand, and to avoid eating or drinking for half an hour beforehand, Raab says. It does not require a nasal swab.

The testing procedure — developed by SUNY Upstate Medical University — involves pooled testing. This process combines 12 saliva samples into one, which is tested for coronavirus.

A negative test means that all 12 people in the group are presumed at the time to be coronavirus-free. A positive test for the pool would trigger additional testing of each person’s sample from that group. This can be done using a portion of their saliva retained from the original sample. Results from this second testing of a positive pool are processed in 24 to 48 hours, and individuals will be instructed to quarantine while awaiting the results of the second test. Individuals who are confirmed to be positive will be required to isolate.