UW-Madison begins new Covid-19 testing plan inspired by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

MADISON, Wis. — As many Badgers have spent the last few weeks resting and relaxing after the fall semester, students and faculty from the school’s University Health Services have been doing anything but that.

In fact, they’ve been gearing up for the launch of an entirely new Covid-19 response plan, based off of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s SHIELD program.  The new plan will require students to get tested twice a week, and includes the debut of a new coronavirus contact tracing app.

“SHIELD is not just the test,” Rebecca Smith, an epidemiologist on UIUC’s SHIELD team said. “SHIELD is a combination of the test, the response to the test and then all of the other non-test controls: masks, distancing, minimizing your social networks. It really is the best possible solution.”

SHIELD is widely regarded as a success, and helped UIUC routinely see positivity rates below 0.5%. In contrast, UW-Madison’s positivity rate reached as high as 12% at one point during the fall semester.

Under the SHIELD plan, UIUC was able to administer nearly 10,000 tests a day, totaling over 1 million tests during the course of the fall semester. The scope of testing that can be achieved with the saliva-based test is exactly part of the reason why other schools are now beginning to model their own responses after SHEILD.

Although, testing alone isn’t enough to stop the spread of the virus. “Obviously testing itself doesn’t prevent the spread. Testing needs to be coupled with rapid isolation… if people who are testing positive aren’t isolating it doesn’t help at all,” Paul Hergenrother, who led the UIUC team that designed the test, said.

UW-Madison and UIUC have similar undergraduate populations of around 35,000 students, which may indicate that Wisconsin will see a similar success with the plan. The goal of the program is to test as many people as possible, in order to isolate those who are carrying the virus but not necessarily symptomatic.

“Almost no where is in the world can you get a test any day of the week as fast and accurate. You get results back in about 10 hours or so, and it gives people a lot of peace of mind,” Hergenrother said. “It’s been something that this community really embraced in a couple of weeks and realized that it’s not onerous at all. In fact, it’s a privilege to be in a place where you have access to this kind of testing.”

Members from the UIUC SHIELD team worked closely with UW-Madison representatives to help facilitate the transition to the new program. Smith explained that she met with faculty from UHS to answer their questions about SHIELD and the tests.

“I have friends and colleagues at Madison,” Smith said. “I work with a whole crew up there and I’ve always told them I really wish we could just send what we have to you, so I’m so happy that its there for my friends. and my colleagues and all of the wonderful students up there.”

The required testing may help make students feel safer about being on campus and returning to in-person classes, UIUC junior Sara Mooney suggested. Mooney explained that she thought her school’s SHIELD program was really helpful and helped give her peace of mind.

“It was super easy. Coming home for breaks and coming home for weekends, it was nice to know that you were coming home negative,” Mooney said.

In order for SHIELD to work, however, it’s crucial that UW-Madison students and faculty follow all Covid-19 guidelines and quarantine themselves when exposed, both UIUC SHIELD team members stressed.

Hergenrother shared his advice for Badger students adopting the new plan: “Go for it and comply. Your administration has made a great decision in going all in on testing everybody but it only works if everyone complies that is everyone goes to get tested.”

Mooney echoed a similar sentiment: “Follow what [UW-Madison administrators] are doing because they’re obviously trying to help students and make it better.”

UW-Madison’s spring semester commences on Jan. 25.