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With students remote, universities should put COVID-19 testing capacity to good use

As the Omicron wave puts pressure on the health care system, some universities are well-positioned to help.

A Boston University staff member helps arrange returned COVID test swabs from students, staff, and others at the university's COVID testing collection kiosk on the campus on Aug. 26, 2021.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

We are graduate students who can access free COVID-19 PCR tests in minutes through our university, despite not taking any classes in person. Meanwhile, our friends who are health care workers must often wait days to get tested because of a lack of access to testing, even though they are at a much higher risk of catching and spreading the virus.

Massachusetts is reporting an average of 25,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, with levels expected to rise and Omicron being the dominant COVID-19 variant. Massachusetts residents have been forced to wait in hours-long lines to get tested, and even though state and local governments have begun to distribute rapid antigen tests to some communities, many people remain unable to access testing.


Even doctors and nurses caring for COVID-19 patients are struggling to get tested, increasing their likelihood of inadvertently spreading COVID-19 to their patients or their own families. Although some hospitals are expanding their testing capacity — for instance, by covering the cost of rapid antigen tests purchased by their employees — health care workers still face difficulties getting timely, convenient tests.

Fortunately, universities may be able to help address this problem.

Colleges across Massachusetts have created systems for testing students and employees for COVID-19 to keep campuses open and outbreaks at bay. While these efforts allowed universities to conduct in-person classes throughout the fall, the Omicron surge has led many universities to delay in-person start dates for the spring term or move January terms entirely online. With students no longer on campus, many schools are running far fewer tests than they were during the fall semester.

For example, last fall, Harvard University routinely processed more than 40,000 PCR tests a week for students and staff at a lab within the university. Since winter break began, Harvard has processed fewer than half as many tests each week. The university’s decision to move coursework online until Jan. 24 means Harvard may retain excess testing capacity until that date. Other Massachusetts universities — including Boston University, Northeastern University, and Boston College — also process at least a portion of their students’ and employees’ COVID-19 tests internally and similarly saw a drop in testing as students left campus for winter break.


Admittedly, just because a university is running fewer tests does not mean it has excess testing capacity. For instance, some schools outsource their testing to commercial labs, which probably reallocate testing capacity when demand shifts. In addition, universities that run tests internally may face issues maintaining high rates of processing (e.g., because employees at these labs may be out sick with COVID-19). Finally, schools may purchase testing kits or other resources from outside vendors, and some may have accounted for the lower number of students on campus when placing orders.

Still, as the Omicron wave puts pressure on the health-care system, some universities are well-positioned to help. They could focus on testing health care workers at hospitals affiliated with their institutions, since these workers may have the login credentials needed to register testing kits or work near where tests are distributed. In addition, testing these health care workers would protect students completing clinical rotations or conducting research in university-affiliated hospitals.


Although it will be complicated for universities to use their excess testing capacity to test health care workers or other high risk populations until students return, unprecedented times call for extraordinary measures. COVID-19 testing is currently a scarce resource, and universities should help mitigate testing shortages by sharing excess capacity until students return.

Leah Pierson is pursuing an MD and PhD in public health at Harvard University. Haley Sullivan is a PhD student at Harvard studying health policy.