FARGO — North Dakota is ramping up efforts to get every college and university student tested for coronavirus, but Minnesota is advising its higher education schools against it.

Why do two neighboring states have differing stances on testing? Experts say it depends on a number of factors, including the ability to test.

North Dakota started holding mass testing events for students on Monday, Aug. 3, in Williston and Minot. With 26 cities participating, the events will be held through Aug. 25, the first full day of classes.

Getting a test is not mandatory, but it is an effort to find asymptomatic students and knock down the potential of the virus spreading, North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott said.

University of North Dakota head football coach Kyle "Bubba" Schweigert is tested Thursday, Aug. 6, for COVID-19 during a mass testing event held for athletes, students, faculty and staff at the UND High Performance Center. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
University of North Dakota head football coach Kyle "Bubba" Schweigert is tested Thursday, Aug. 6, for COVID-19 during a mass testing event held for athletes, students, faculty and staff at the UND High Performance Center. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

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“It is a war against a virus, and we think we can win this thing,” he said during a press conference Tuesday.

Minnesota fears mass testing could strain resources, Minnesota Department of Health spokesman Scott Smith said. The state has more than 400,000 college students, Smith said, but MDH can only do an estimated 20,000 tests a day.

“This means we’d be dedicating 20 days of testing — that could not be used in other settings such as long-term care — to test one student at a time,” he said.

The state is prioritizing the tests for people with symptoms, health care workers and others who may need the test, Minnesota government spokeswoman Noelle Hawton said.

Mass testing was “not the most effective approach for colleges to reach the goal of opening and staying open,” Smith added.

State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra was unavailable for comment, but several universities and colleges in Minnesota noted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend broad testing for students since it hasn’t been “systematically studied.” It’s unknown if mass testing would help beyond other preventative measures, such as wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing, the CDC said.

Mass testing upon arrival at colleges could miss early stages of infection, Smith said, especially from students who are infected as they travel to campus. He suggested students doing a “mini stay-at-home order at least two weeks prior to coming to campus.”

Some states are holding testing events for students, said Arrick Jackson, Minnesota State University Moorhead vice president of academic affairs.

“I think our system has made the right decision to not deprive those resources and, of course, not be outside the MDH guidelines,” he said.

Each state has different resource availability and must make that decision for themselves, Jackson said. Everyone is doing the best they can to keep people safe, he explained.

“We are all trying to navigate this environment,” he added.

Concordia College in Moorhead also is following MDH recommendations and does not plan to conduct mass testing for students, said Roger Olson, the school’s risk management director. The state is not requiring students to get tested before they return to class, he said.

The state has developed a web-based health screening tool that people who plan to visit any of the 54 campuses must use, Hawton said. Both Concordia and MSUM have plans in place to help people who are exposed or become symptomatic get tested.

“If someone is symptomatic, absolutely we’d like them to get tested, and they can let us know those test results,” Olson said.

Getting ahead of the virus

The CDC guidelines don't mean campuses are prohibited from testing students. They detail conditions to consider when deciding if states should take that step, including availability of testing resources and exposure to the coronavirus in the surrounding communities.

“It’s never been systematically tested that jumping out of a plane without a parachute is a good idea,” said Dr. Joshua Wynne, the University of North Dakota medical school dean who oversees the university system’s “smart restart” task force, noting people understand that doing so is not a good idea.

Hagerott pointed to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s comments in media reports that testing would be key to opening campuses. Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, warned that campuses have to be careful about mass testing.

Fauci was unavailable for comment this week.

The university system task force in North Dakota has spent months formulating a strategy to help bring students back to campus safely, Hagerott said. Wynne and Hagerott both said in a Thursday, Aug. 6, interview with The Forum they are confident in North Dakota's ability to test students without overwhelming statewide efforts for the general public.

North Dakota is doing more than 5,000 tests a day on average and should have the ability to do 8,000 in the near future, Hagerott said. Last year, the state had almost 45,000 students.

Details are being worked out to do follow-up testing for university system students, Hagerott said. Campuses also have strategies in place to help screen students for symptoms and help them get tested when needed.

Both states have their own plans to prevent the spread of the virus on campuses, which include social distancing and a hybrid of online and in-person education. The situation is ever-changing, but schools appeared confident in their plans.

“We are going to learn a lot and we are going to be challenged a lot, and I think everyone is aware of that,” Jackson said.

Because of an executive order from Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, students will be required to wear masks inside buildings. North Dakota does not have a mask mandate, but many schools, including North Dakota State University, will require students to wear masks in the classroom or while interacting with others.

“I think we have achieved the right balance of protecting people as much as we possibly can with having the robust on-campus experience students want,” Wynne said.

To find a testing event, go to ndus.edu/gettested.