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Penn community members getting tested for COVID-19 at the DuBois/Rodin Field testing site on Jan. 19. Credit: Kylie Cooper

As students make their way back to campus for the spring semester, the threat of COVID-19 still looms large. To limit the spread of the virus, the University is launching the Penn Cares COVID-19 response program, which requires undergraduates to get tested for COVID-19 twice per week at one of several locations on campus. 

Undergraduate students living on or off campus must schedule their COVID-19 saliva tests twice a week on pre-assigned days, whereas graduate students who live on campus, as well as faculty who live on campus or in the College Houses, will be tested on two days of their choice each week, according to an email sent to the Penn community on Jan. 14. 

Off-campus graduate students who visit campus each week, faculty and staff, and postdoctoral trainees will be tested once a week. Students arriving on campus for the spring semester are not required to test before arrival, but must receive day-of-arrival gateway COVID-19 testing and quarantine in their place of residence until they receive results for their gateway test.

There are currently eight testing sites on campus that will be open throughout the spring semester, covering various hours and days across each week.

Seven sites will offer saliva testing for asymptomatic individuals. Ace Adams South Field, the Annenberg Center, and Richards Plaza testing centers will be open Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Houston Hall center will be open 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The High Rise Field center will be open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. The Iron Gate Theatre center will be open 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, and the Palestra Concourse will be open from 10:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m, Monday through Friday. 

Irvine Auditorium will only be open for symptomatic and close-contact nasal swab testing from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturday.

Prior to taking a saliva-based test, participants must refrain from eating, drinking, brushing their teeth, using mouth wash, chewing gum, vaping, and using tobacco for at least 30 minutes before the test. Participants must also have a valid PennCard, as well as a green PennOpen Pass indicating that they are not symptomatic and have not been exposed to COVID-19. PennOpen Pass, a web-based daily symptom checker and exposure reporting system, determines whether an individual is allowed inside Penn buildings and in Penn transit.

The saliva-based testing method, which Penn implemented on Dec. 7, enabled the University to increase testing capacity prior to student arrival in the spring semester, and it is as effective as the nasal swab testing, according to an email sent to students from Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé on Dec. 2. 

Credit: Kylie Cooper Testing observer Brittany Sellers (left) checks College sophomore Sarah Ramadan's COVID-19 test tube at the DuBois/Rodin Field testing site on Jan. 19.

If an individual receives a positive test or has been in contact with someone who has tested positive, their PennOpen Pass will turn red, and they may be asked to quarantine or isolate after speaking with a campus health official and contact tracer. Inconclusive tests will not cause the PennOpen Pass to turn red. 

Testing alone is not enough to ensure the wellness and safety of the Penn community, Director of Campus Health Ashlee Halbritter said.

“This re-opening is still a re-opening in a pandemic, which means normal life does not resume,” Halbritter said. “Everybody should still be wearing masks, and you absolutely should not be sharing meals and sharing drinks. That is the biggest risk factor we see among students: the gathering of people you don’t live with, and the sharing of meals and the sharing of drinks — or even just eating in shared spaces but not doing so 6 feet apart.”

Information about when vaccines will be available for students is currently unavailable, Halbritter said. Professor of Medicine Harvey Rubin said in December that vaccines will eventually be provided free of charge to faculty, staff, and students, and Penn Medicine frontline healthcare workers began receiving vaccines in mid-December.

Other practices and resources that will be implemented as part of the Penn Cares initiative include the Campus Compact and the Quiet Period. The Quiet Period, in place until Feb. 1, mandates that graduate and undergraduate students only leave their residences for essential activities. Although these measures will be in place regardless of the COVID-19 situation on and off campus, the University's general response will change as the situation evolves, Dubé said. He encouraged members of the Penn community to follow @COVIDPenn on Instagram and Twitter to stay up-to-date with public health guidance.

The University has also designated four alert levels this semester which will guide restrictions on campus operations depending on factors such as Philadelphia case counts, the positivity rate on campus, and isolation facility capacity. 

The levels range from Level 1: Baseline Mitigation Strategies — under which members of the University community will follow public health guidance by attending classes primarily online, gathering in groups of fewer than 10, completing daily symptom checks, participating in testing, practicing physical distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands frequently — to Level 4: Campus Closure, under which Penn would move to all remote classes and activities and may also instruct students to leave campus. 

The University's current alert level is Level 2: Heightened Awareness, meaning that conditions suggest increased exposure and case counts on and off campus. Under this level, the Penn community must follow restrictions placed on gatherings, and access to libraries and gyms may be restricted or denied.

Alert Level 3: Safer at Home, under which students must quarantine in their place of residence, may be triggered if evidence of significant community spread arises, the 7-day rolling average of positive cases overall or among screening tests alone increases significantly, the presentation of another illness increases significantly, or the Commonwealth or Philadelphia Department of Health announces further restrictions.

Halbritter said although University administration is providing resources to minimize virus exposure, the burden is on students to follow public health guidelines, especially given that information about when student vaccinations might happen is currently unavailable, and that students will be required to continue masking, distancing, and washing hands even after receiving the vaccine.

“We are thrilled to be re-opening. We are thrilled that we were able to put together a public health response that allows us to do our best to keep students healthy and safe, but students need to know that this re-opening does not mean a return to normal.”