Credit…Heather Ainsworth/Associated Press

Colleges and universities across the United States have relaxed campus requirements for coronavirus testing of those vaccinated in recent weeks, wiping out some of the latest widespread surveillance testing programs and dismaying public health experts, who say that solid sources of transmission data will be lost.

Cornell University, Stanford Universitythe University of Southern California and duke university are among the major institutions that have already fallen regular testing requirements for community members fully vaccinated and boosted, or planning to do so in the coming weeks.

Institutions like these have provided a “rich environment” for understanding transmission in shared living spaces, said Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona College of Public Health.

Most universities making the switch will continue to require unvaccinated students and staff to be tested regularly, despite this being a relatively small population on campuses with vaccination mandates. Limiting surveillance testing to this group could make it harder to track the spread of the virus and the highly contagious Omicron BA.2 subvariant, experts said.

Cornell, for example, reported that 97% of its students are fully vaccinated and 92% also received a booster dose. The university credited its extensive surveillance testing program, which included weekly testing of vaccinated students, with discovering Omicron’s rapid spread among students in December.

Two months later, university officials said they were “confident that frequent and regular testing of asymptomatic, vaccinated, and boosted individuals is no longer necessary to adequately monitor our community.” In mid-March, the school also relaxed its on-campus mask mandate.

At the end of the month, Cornell experienced an increase in coronavirus cases that appeared to be second only in intensity to its first Omicron wave in December, resulting in final exams moving online and all events being canceled. sponsored by the university.

Cases are increasing “beyond our predictions,” officials said March 23.

Getting an accurate count of active cases on campus is now more difficult. The majority of positive test results are now recorded through testing of people who already have symptoms, the university said, meaning that asymptomatic cases – the type that can only be detected by surveillance testing – were not detected. People who have enough coronavirus in their bodies to test positive but don’t experience any symptoms are still able to transmit the virus to others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even so, some public health experts say advances in sewage monitoring, widespread access to rapid tests, and the protection afforded by vaccines and past infections mean that the shift from a university’s strategy to targeted testing might work – unless there is a drastic change in the virus, such as the possible emergence of more vaccine-evasive variants that scientists have warned against.

“It could easily be true that proactive testing was a useful thing for them and they don’t need it now,” said Carl Bergstrom, professor of biology at the University of Washington in Seattle and paid consultant for Color. , a health technology company that has conducted coronavirus testing for businesses and universities.

Universal proctoring tests involve a lot of work and expense, so colleges are faced with questions of sustainability. Boston University has processed more than two million tests in its own lab since August 2020 at significant cost, said Dr. Judy Platt, the school’s chief health officer. The university will end asymptomatic testing fully after May 23.

Whatever the reasoning, the reduction in testing, especially alongside the relaxation of mask mandates, has left many of the most vulnerable on campus feeling betrayed.

Rebecca Harrison, a doctoral candidate who was a member of Cornell’s original reopening committee in 2020 and who is immunocompromised, said she found her university’s rhetoric about learning about life with the virus to be a ” slap in the face” — particularly his decision to accept some level of “inevitable viral spread” among vaccinees, as the university president said at a press conference in January town hall Meet.

Other US institutions have ended widespread surveillance testing. Companies wanting employees to return to the office have relied on home testing and self-reporting. The NFL suspended all of its Covid-19 protocols, including random testing, in March. The White House has warned that some virus surveillance would have to end without increased congressional funding, leaving the country less prepared for the next variant.

“We give politicians a rationale for the decisions they make,” Ms Harrison said of elite research universities opting out of surveillance testing. “And it hurts everyone.”