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College reentry program launches, leaving students confused about COVID testing

Classes are set to start at Jacksonville State University in two weeks, but some students have found the reentry plan the school will use for mandatory COVID-19 testing to be confusing. 

The plan, called GuideSafe, was developed by the University of Alabama, UAB Hospital, Apple, Google and the Alabama Department of Public Health. It combines three smartphone apps with a simple ultimatum: Get tested for coronavirus before returning to class.

Officials involved with the GuideSafe program said during a live broadcast Monday that the UAB pathology lab will test upwards of 200,000 Alabama college students over the next four weeks, processing as many as 12,000 test kits per day. Most of those kits will be collected from 14 testing sites around the state that open officially Tuesday, including one in Jacksonville. 

JSU is requiring students to be screened for the virus before they can attend the fall semester, which begins Aug. 18. Some students, like JSU communications major Breanna Hill, have already had tests performed but have received emails telling them their tests were taken too early and will have to be rescheduled. Still others have been confused by a variety of processes and stipulations. 

“I received an email about a week and a half ago saying I needed to make an appointment through this site to get tested for free as a requirement for the fall semester, so I made the appointment and got tested,” Hill wrote in a text message Monday. She received the email July 25; the next day she took the test, and the day after that, the results came back negative.  

Confusion in communication

Receiving results ought to have been the end, but a few days later Hill received an email from the company managing test schedules for GuideSafe. She had been scheduled for testing too early, the email said, so she had been removed from the company’s database entirely. She would be added back to the database a week later and could schedule another test. 

The university’s COVID-19 task force wrote on its page Thursday that there had been some issues with GuideSafe’s rollout, which seemed to acknowledge issues like Hill’s. 

“GuideSafe has experienced a couple of hiccups over the past week as the program began to roll out to universities across the state,” an unsigned update on the JSU COVID-19 page states. “It has come to our attention that some students were emailed incorrect testing information, which was later corrected with a follow-up email from GuideSafe.”

Hill said she plans to call the office of Student Affairs on Tuesday to learn whether her test results will still count toward the fall semester. But keeping up with the rules of GuideSafe and plans at JSU has been difficult. 

“I don’t think they’re sure of how things are going to go,” Hill wrote, “so coming up with different plans is a good idea in my opinion, but different options and plans are being tossed out and it’s hard to figure out which one is the most recent.” 

Varied requirements

Other aspects of testing were also confusing for students. Another email from GuideSafe states that students who tested positive for the virus in the last 12 weeks would not have to be tested before attending classes, as long as they present the school with a copy of their positive test result and medical clearance from a health care provider. What that medical clearance entails, like more testing, was unclear based on the email and GuideSafe’s documentation. 

Dr. Mike Saag, a professor at the UAB Division of Infectious Disease, wrote by email Monday night that while it’s unknown if someone infected with COVID-19 can be reinfected, “it is widely held that antibodies produced in response to the initial infection are part of the protection against reinfection,” and that those antibodies last for about 12 weeks. 

A person who had the virus could test positive for COVID-19 because of non-infectious genetic material that remains in their airways, he wrote, which also clears away after about 12 weeks. 

Asked if someone who had the virus could contract it again within that time span, Saag wrote that while “it is possible theoretically for anyone with prior COVID-19 to become infected again,” there have so far been an insufficient number of cases in which that has happened to consider it likely.

"For now, it is assumed that this would not happen within a 12-week period between the episodes," Saag wrote.  

Meanwhile, other students had received in-home test kits that could be mailed to labs for testing, which had created more confusion among would-be JSU attendees who didn’t receive those kits. According to Ashley Foster, a GuideSafe representative, those are reserved for out-of-state students who will attend Alabama colleges this month.  

There were bright spots in the testing process despite its speedbumps, Hill noted. Her test at a site in Birmingham was free and it was simple; she was able to use a nasal swab herself, which was painless, and results were back in a day. 

“It tickled a little, but that’s about it,” she wrote. 

Hill wrote that safety should continue to be the No. 1 priority as students return to school. 

“I don’t know if I feel completely secure just yet,” she wrote, “but I feel secure enough to go through all of this to see if returning to normal is possible.”

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.