URBANA – Administrators at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign want to expand their testing program to the broader Champaign-Urbana community. U of I System President Tim Killeen said earlier this week that the university system was working with Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to expand its saliva-based COVID-19 test to other communities and public institutions throughout the state. Killeen says expansion will begin in the communities that host U of I System campuses, located in Urbana-Champaign, Springfield and Chicago.
Killeen says the logistics are still being worked out.
At the U of I’s Urbana campus, Chancellor Robert Jones says they’ve recently acquired a new mobile testing lab, which will expand the campus’ ability to analyze COVID-19 tests. Currently, Jones says the campus is analyzing an average of 14,000 tests per day, and on some days up to 18,000. He says the campus’ capacity to analyze tests is “maxed out,” but this mobile lab, once it clears the certification process, will allow the university to process more saliva samples.
Jones says he has spoken with the mayors of both Urbana and Champaign, as well as school officials from Champaign Unit 4 Schools and Urbana School District 116, to figure out how to use the campus’ testing technologies to benefit the broader community.
“Our priority is that as we extend this testing capability beyond this campus, our first priority will be to the Urbana-Champaign community, because we are inextricably linked. Our campus is very porous,” Jones says.
He says there is no evidence that students are spreading the virus to members of the Champaign-Urbana community — that’s despite a surge in COVID-19 cases on the campus earlier this month. However, Jones says, it’s important that city officials and business owners have a greater understanding of how the virus is spreading outside of the U of I, which will then inform policies and decisions.
Jones says their vision is “to have some way for community members to come to some location and deposit a saliva sample in the same way that we do it on campus.”
“This mobile laboratory is the additional facility and will provide the opportunity for us to extend it to the broader community,” he says. “And certainly with the hope (of) the financial support that we are trying to garner from the governor’s office will allow this to be expedited as soon as possible.”
Jones says the soonest the mobile lab will be available to the community is about three to four weeks from now.
Decline in daily COVID-19 cases on campus
Jones says “students stepped up to the plate” and modified their behavior over the last couple weeks, which has resulted in a decline in the number of new infections on campus. Total COVID-19 cases on campus, as of Friday September 18, stand at about 2,000, with a seven-day case positivity rate of 0.35%. The U of I’s Urbana campus restricted student movement for two weeks earlier this month to curb a surge in new infections.
But Jones says the declining case numbers and positivity rate is not yet a cause for celebration. The campus continues to urge students to keep their distance and continue wearing masks. As of late this week, they are now allowed to gather in groups of up to 10 people, preferably outside, and always with masks and social distancing. Jones says the message to students is that they should still observe all public health guidelines.
“Don’t go to somebody’s party, where there might not be the appropriate mask wearing or it exceeds the limits that’s been set by the city, and the limits that we’ve agreed upon,” he says.
The U of I also announced a series of in-person student events, beginning next week. The events include movie nights and concerts where capacity will be limited and masks required. The U of I says it’s also seeking input from students about how they can socialize while also maintaining safety.
Lee Gaines is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines