UI adds capacity to test university community for COVID-19; vaccine eligibility remains limited for employees

University of Iowa health officials said cheaper supply prices have allowed the university to administer COVID-19 tests at full capacity, but faculty have to wait for their vaccine eligibility.


Hannah Kinson

A member of UIHC staff fills needles with the Moderna vaccine on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021 at the UI Medical Education Research Facility. (Hannah Kinson/The Daily Iowan)

Sabine Martin, News Reporter

Low COVID-19 test supply last spring limited the University of Iowa‘s on-campus testing system. Now, university officials said the UI is capable of administering COVID-19 tests at full capacity.

Currently, the UI tests all symptomatic and close-contact cases, but despite more tests being available for cheaper, the UI does not plan to expand testing eligibility criteria, UI Director of Student Health Paul Natvig said.

Natvig said studies have shown that the UI has comprehensive data to work with when testing students in the current system and changing the criteria could mess with its data without testing many more students. Cases have been low recently — into the single digits — so there doesn’t seem to be a need to expand testing for larger outbreaks.

UI Campus Health Officer Dan Fick told the UI Faculty Council on March 9 that there is a “fire sale on tests right now” and companies are making COVID-19 test components less expensive.

“That’s usually good news when the testing capacity cost goes down,” Fick told the Faculty Council last week.

Most student and employee COVID-19 tests at the UI are run at the UI Hospitals and Clinics State Hygienic Lab and through the Test Iowa program, Natvig said.

The first cases of COVID-19 in the UI community were seen by mid-March of 2020 and COVID-19 testing supplies were limited. By the summer of 2020, UI student health has been able to test all students who meet the criteria, Natvig said.

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As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, the UI planned to implement COVID-19 surveillance testing for asymptomatic cases in December. Because of a low number of cases during the spring semester, Natvig said, the UI has not had to start the surveillance program.

Natvig said surveillance testing will be implemented if a large COVID-19 breakout occurs in the current water surveillance program of on-campus buildings.

Fick told the Faculty Council that the low number of COVID-19 cases on campus mirrors Johnson County’s case percentage.

In the last two weeks, the UI has reported 19 self-reported COVID-19 cases.

Faculty vaccinations

The UI Critical Incident Management team meets twice a week to review eligibility requests for faculty COVID-19 vaccination, UI deputy chief human resources officer Joni Troester told the Faculty Council last week.

The Iowa Department of Public Health is currently vaccinating those who qualify for Phase 1B of vaccination. This phase includes those ages 65 and older and front-line workers, as well as people under 65 with health conditions that make them susceptible to COVID-19.

On Wednesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said all Iowans over 16 years of age may be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by April 5.

The UI must follow the Iowa Department of Public Health’s guidelines for administering the COVID-19 vaccine, which establishes an order of priority, Assistant Vice President for External Relations Jeneane Beck wrote in an email to the DI.

Iowa’s vaccination priority groups do not include employees at higher education institutions.

Each state in the U.S. can have its own interpretations of when to open up the vaccine to different groups, Natvig said.

“I don’t think the state’s ever going to make [higher education employees] a category because as you can probably understand, many people will have at least one condition that would qualify them,” Natvig said.

Beck wrote to the DI that the UI will not make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for UI employees.

“You are encouraged to receive the vaccine as soon as you are eligible, in consultation with your health care provider, but it will not be mandatory,” Beck wrote.

Fick told the UI Faculty Senate that when doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are more plentiful, there will be more options for UI faculty to get vaccinated.

“I understand it’s hard because we are all looking out and seeing non-health care faculty at Big Ten institutions being vaccinated,” Fick said. “That’s just our challenge we have with the current guidelines through the Iowa Department of Public Health.”