URBANA – The University of Illinois’ saliva-based COVID-19 testing program will soon be available to the larger Champaign-Urbana community, according to university officials. Currently, the test is only available to students and staff on some college campuses. But officials say plans are now in the works to make it available to Champaign-Urbana community members, too.
The university just completed construction of a prototype of a mobile COVID-19 testing lab which, pending approval, will be crucial to the testing program’s expansion.
“You look at the impact that this is going to have in building up this testing capability, it’s state-of-the-art,” said U of I Chancellor Robert Jones at a virtual COVID-19 briefing.
Jones said the university is partnering with local public health officials to expand its testing program.
“We’re not in this alone, and part of what we are excited about doing is extending this amazing capability to others,” he said. “We’re very excited about that piece.”
According to Jones, community expansion has been discussed among university officials since the beginning of the semester. He said beta testing will begin taking place in the next several weeks.
“We have some details we’ve got to work out regarding the data systems, the other structural elements, the financing pieces of this, but we’re very excited,” he said.
The university’s testing program is still awaiting Emergency Use Authorization by the Food and Drug Administration. But that doesn’t prevent the university from legally operating the test, according to Martin Burke, who helped develop the test. However, if approved, it would allow other entities to more easily replicate the university’s testing system.
During the virtual briefing, university officials also discussed the possibility for more in-person learning opportunities for students in the upcoming spring semester. They say face-to-face instruction boosts morale, and it’s a priority given the feedback they’ve gotten from students and parents alike.
“That in-person experience adds a lot to efforts that we need to be directing toward reducing all the emotional stress and mental stress that our students are experiencing right now,” said Andreas Cangellaris, the university’s Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost.
Cangellaris said the university’s testing program has limited the number of COVID-19 cases on campus and increased safety in the classroom. According to data provided by the university, there are approximately 35,000 students living on or near the Urbana campus, and roughly 3,000 have contracted COVID-19 since the semester began in August.
The expansion of in-person instruction will hinge upon whether that trend continues, according to Cangellaris.
Dana is a reporter for Illinois Newsroom. Follow her on Twitter: @DanaHCronin