By CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN, InDepthNH.org
Students at New Hampshire colleges and universities who test positive will be reported as New Hampshire residents, Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette confirmed Thursday.
The state will ensure this by having students enter the address of their school, not their home address, on their test forms. The case count for Plymouth, for example, will include the number of positive cases at Plymouth State University.
Pre-arrival testing of college students, tests that students take at home before coming to school, have already identified positive cases, Shibinette said. “We are never going to say that a positive case is a good thing, but if I were going to say that something is a good catch, it would be finding a positive person before they get on campus,” she said.
Students must present a negative test result before arriving to campuses if their school conducts pre-arrival testing.
“I don’t think we are ever going to prevent all transmission on a full campus or in a school. That is not the expectation,” Shibinette said when asked about the efficacy and usefulness of testing that takes places only periodically, when students are moving constantly across their campuses.
She explained that regular testing minimizes the period of time in which a student unknowingly carries the virus and spreads it in their community. “By doing regular surveillance testing, we break the chain of transmission sooner, and that’s the goal,” she said.
Also at the press conference Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu said that average test turn-around times had dropped down to three to five days from the seven to nine days the state experienced a few weeks ago.
College Town Tension
Concerns about the risks posed by college students has brought tension to many college communities in the state, with several implementing mandatory mask rules and citing concerns around student behavior as one reason for the rules. Some residents are concerned about potential student outbreaks in their communities.
Seasonal residents and tourists who test positive in New Hampshire are not reported as cases in the Granite State but as cases in their state of residence.
Shibinette’s statement means this would not mirror the testing procedure for college students, who will instead be reported as residents of the towns in which their schools are located, not of their hometowns.
While the exact procedures around containment strategies like testing and contact tracing vary by institution, there are several practices and programs aimed at helping prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 that have been adopted almost universally by institutions across the Granite State and New England this year.
Most schools will test students before and/or during their arrival process. Plymouth State University has sent tests to students to conduct at-home pre-arrival, and students must present a negative result before arrival. They will be tested again upon arrival, and a third time 10-12 days later, according to the school’s arrival plan.
UNH is also requiring a negative test before arrival, and its plan says it will test students as quickly as possible during their arrival week and regularly throughout the semester. UNH is developing its own diagnostic test, which it says will be operational by the time students arrive on campus and will provide expedient test results.
Dartmouth students will be tested upon arrival and must quarantine in their rooms until they receive a result. The school has promised 30-hour turn-around times, and meals will be delivered to residence halls while students are self-quarantined.
Most students sign or agree to a health pledge or informed consent form before returning to campus, binding them to adherence of their school’s health protocols. Schools have incorporated violations of health and safety guidance – such as mask mandates, group size limits, travel and visitation restrictions, and honest symptom reporting – into their disciplinary system, though consequences for violations vary.
At most schools, students must use an app to complete a daily health self-screening where they verify their temperature, symptoms, and report any activity that may have put them at risk. Some schools have students keep a contact tracing journal of everyone they have been in close contact with. These systems are meant to more quickly identify, test, and isolate students who could carry the virus and more promptly contain spread.