OSHKOSH, Wis. — Like other schools across the world, UW-Oshkosh faced an important question when planning for this fall’s return to campus: What’s the best way to keep students, faculty, and staff safe in the midst of a global pandemic?

UWO Chancellor Andrew Leavitt, who himself has a background in chemistry, says the school made a somewhat controversial choice: They focused their strategy on rapid antigen tests, which are quicker and cheaper but potentially less accurate.

“I was actually quite comfortable with the idea that we may have a test that may be a little less sensitive, a little less accurate than the PCR, but at the same time, a lot less expensive. And we can test an awful lot more because the turnaround times are so much faster,” Leavitt says. “So we adopted the antigen test very early on as really the central pillar of our strategy.”

The university’s back-to-school plan may now provide useful data for the nation’s pandemic response: Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control are using samples from UW-Oshkosh students to help get a better understanding of antigen testing and how it can be best used against COVID-19.

Unlike the commonly used PCR tests, which search for bits of the coronavirus’s genetic material, antigen tests instead seek out specific proteins on the virus’s surface. Though the use of rapid antigen tests has grown — even the White House has taken them up as a screening tool — scientists still have more to learn about just how accurate they are, says Kimberly Langolf, UWO’s director of risk and safety. 

Langolf says the CDC approached the school a few weeks ago, after already reaching out to Winnebago County to help manage an influx of cases in the community. Researchers there wanted to work with UWO to get a more robust data set for the antigen tests.

“They were interested in really trying to validate further those tests and compare to the traditional PCR test,” Langolf said. “And since we're a university, and we are always engaging in research and learning, we really wanted to understand that as well.”

So, since last Thursday, CDC scientists have been added to the mix in the school’s testing facility — a large, repurposed gym where students come to get swabbed. 

UWO has been testing all students in residence halls once a week, plus off-campus students who come in after feeling symptoms or being potentially exposed, Langolf says. That amounts to about 400 or 450 tests each day. 

Langolf says the UWO testing program focuses on frequent, large-scale screening to quickly isolate possibly infected patients. According to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard, they’ve administered nearly 9,000 tests since September and seen 657 cases as of Thursday.

“We're really using the antigen test to surveil our communities,” Langolf says. “So it's used for surveillance, not for diagnostics.”

Once nurses take the students’ samples, those swabs are then walked over to another part of the gym, where technicians are constantly running antigen analyzers to get students their results back within the day — thanks in part to the added support of Prevea Health partners, Langolf says.

Now, the students who agree to be part of the CDC study get a second swab, which the CDC researchers will send back to their hub in Atlanta for a diagnostic PCR test. This way, they can compare the results and see how the antigen tests stack up on sensitivity (or accurately catching positive cases) and specificity (or correctly identifying negative cases).

Though not all students have participated, Langolf says the CDC researchers have been averaging about 150 samples per day. By the time they plan to leave on Friday, she says they should have a very good sample size to compare.

“Hopefully, based on the results of this study, we'll be able to understand how we can use it in universities, or maybe nursing homes, or other areas where we have people that are still together,” Langolf says. “And be able to make sure that they can do those activities safely.”

Leavitt says he felt the CDC partnership was a testament to the testing protocol they’ve set up on campus.

“Under the circumstances, we’re of course very honored to have the CDC working here with us,” Leavitt says. “It's also very reassuring to our faculty, staff, and students that again, it's sort of a great validation of what it is that we're doing.”

Generally, Leavitt says it’s been one of the highlights of his career to see his faculty and staff rise to the occasion in response to the constantly evolving COVID-19 crisis. He says they thought returning to in-person learning was important, as around 70% of students surveyed over the summer said they wanted at least some face-to-face instruction. 

The campus did face a major spike in cases shortly after fall semester started, at one point hitting a daily positivity rate of 23%, Leavitt says. But since then, the numbers have dipped significantly — even as the surrounding Oshkosh-Neenah region ranks as having the worst outbreak in the country, according to The New York Times. On Thursday, the seven-day average for test positivity on campus sat at 3.1%. 

The same-day turnaround of the antigen tests played a big role in getting those case numbers down, Langolf says.

“We really were able to isolate very quickly, quarantine, and get those individuals out of the residence halls to protect the rest of the community,” she says.

Generally, the school has also seen high compliance on other safety measures like wearing masks and social distancing, Leavitt says, although they’ve had a few issues with students gathering at bars and house parties. When walking around campus buildings, though, Leavitt says, “I simply don’t see people without masks.”

Moving forward, campus leaders say they’ll keep adapting as we continue to learn more about the virus. They’ve already made some changes — like scaling up their testing numbers to 400 students per week to 400-plus each day, and shutting down in-person dining after learning more about airborne spread. 

Even beyond the school itself, Langolf also says they want to be “good partners and good stewards” to their community, as Oshkosh is facing high levels of transmission and they know their students’ behavior has effects that stretch past campus grounds. 

Overall, Leavitt says he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the rest of the semester.

“There's a lot of hard work, a lot of planning, a lot of skill that went into this. There's also a little bit of luck,” Leavitt says. “I don't want to underestimate that. We've been fortunate thus far that we were able to navigate that first surge. I'm sure that will not be the last surge that we have to navigate.”