UI-developed COVID-19 saliva tests make in-person rehearsals possible for performing arts departments

The UI Theatre Department, School of Music, and Dance department have all used a saliva test developed by researchers at the University of Iowa in order to safely rehearse and perform.


Raquele Decker

Photo Illustration by Raquele Decker.

Josie Fischels, Arts Editor

For the performing arts, the worldwide transition to digital interaction over Zoom has been particularly devastating. With limited options available to continue to provide their students a meaningful education, leaders within the performing-arts departments at Iowa — Theater, Dance, and Music — scrambled to find a way to continue safely creating together before the fall semester began.

The answer was as simple as spitting into a cup.

This academic year, students within each department needing to meet in person for rehearsals, performances, and other group gatherings regularly take a self-administered saliva coronavirus test, developed by UI professor Val Sheffield and a team of researchers within his lab in the Medical Education and Research Facility last spring.

The lab began collaborating with the performing arts departments at the beginning of the year as part of their research study as the test awaits FDA approval. The test – which is provided to the departments at no cost – eliminates the need for nasal swab or medical personnel to deliver it. Students simply snort, clear their throat, and then spit into a tube.

Afterward, they pour the contents of a second tube containing a “virus-inactivation solution” that kills the live virus if it is present in their saliva before placing the completed test into a biohazard bag to be delivered back to Sheffield’s lab and analyzed for traces of the coronavirus.

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The test has over a 95 percent accuracy rate and takes seconds to complete. The lab delivers results within a few hours, which is particularly helpful so the Theatre Department can know whether or not they can hold rehearsals over the weekend, said Director of Theatre Bryon Winn. Cast members and others involved in the show sign up for a time to pick up, complete, and return their test the Thursday or Friday before coming into the building to rehearse that weekend.

“It’s fantastic because they turn around tests for me by 6 p.m. every day,” Winn said. “So, if you take a test on Thursday morning, I know at 6 p.m. whether or not we have any problems. Friday, the same thing. So, before anyone would even be in the building, starting rehearsals, we would know if anyone had tested positive.”

The Theatre Department’s shows this year are all being filmed or recorded on Zoom in order to bring the performances to a virtual audience. For the few performances this season that are partially or entirely filmed, actors, designers, directors, and the crew must come together to learn blocking and film the show in person.

Both the Theatre Department and the School of Music have recruited students to run “testing tables” on days students come in to take the test. The students, such as UI senior and stage manager in the Theatre Department Brillian Qi-Bell, hand out tests, keep track of student testing times on spreadsheets, and deliver the completed tests to the Medical Education Research Facility each testing day.

“We have student volunteers that have been doing this since the beginning, which is remarkable,” said School of Music Director Tammie Walker.

Similar to the Theatre Department, the School of Music has a table set up twice a week to test students needing to perform or rehearse together in person. Walker receives a spreadsheet later in the day from the lab with the results.

So far, Walker and Winn said, neither department has reported a positive test, a result they attribute to the character and healthy habits of their students, as well as the additional, incredibly strict safety protocols each department takes within the building.

“We don’t have any big ensembles happening right now, we don’t have big choirs on stage orchestras and giant bands,” Walker said. “We have small groups of students that have to be spread way out, using bell covers over their instruments and modified face masks. And it’s very challenging. But at every turn, whenever we’re able to do something, it’s worth it. So even if it is, you know, one-fifth of the length of a normal concert and one-tenth the size of people on the stage, it’s so meaningful.”

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To partake in the research study, anyone from the university is able to email the lab. UI postdoctoral student and member of Sheffield’s team Calvin Carter said that the lab has worked on a more regular basis with the UI performing-arts departments due to their greater need to meet in person.

“It makes sense to have rehearsals [in person], and you need to make sure people are not spreading the virus,” he said. “We want students to enjoy themselves and perform together in person because it’s kind of weird — you can do a Zoom performance but it’s not the same as something in person and having a team together.”

While a similar saliva test at Rutgers University and Yale have been approved by the FDA, the UI has yet to become the next Research I university to gain approval to administer the test on a more widespread level. The lab currently uses only one machine to process the tests, which can process up to 300 tests a day.

Carter said the lab typically sees between 100-200 tests returned to them daily.

M.D./Ph.D. student and member of Sheffield’s team Sunny Huang said working on providing a more accessible coronavirus tests means the team uses its skills to do its part to monitor the spread of the virus.

“I think it’s just because we do have the capability to do this,” she said. “And we have a skill set to do this. I think it’s a service that we should be providing to the public because there’s just a lot of people who don’t know what’s going on, and it scares them. They don’t know where to go get tested, and sometimes it can take a really long time to actually get in to get a nasal swab.”

For Winn, being able to make theatre live together in any capacity during the pandemic is incredibly meaningful.

“I am encouraged by what we’re doing, and it’s nice to just be in the room,” he said. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to not be in the room for seven months, and then be able to kind of go back, even when people are masked or people are distant from each other.”