Swabbing to Success

Tufts’s COVID-19 Testing Regime and the Greater Community

Disclaimer: A previous version of this article contained an error. The previous version stated that the Tufts Literacy Corps had experienced technological strain amongst its students rather than students of the Medford and Somerville area in general. This error has been corrected.

In response to demands made by Somerville and Medford residents, Tufts has expanded its testing resources to its neighboring communities after many weeks of successful mass testing. Starting October 13, Tufts has agreed to provide free COVID-19 testing for abutters of Medford and Somerville. Every week, up to 300 tests will be available for residents of these neighborhoods, excluding those under the age of 18. 

Though this recent expansion of Tufts testing for surrounding areas appeases many city officials, prioritizing the opening of Tufts before local K-12 schools represents a larger pattern occurring nationally, as reported in the New York Times. Without adequate testing protocols, local parents, like Hendrik Gideonse of Medford, hesitate to send their children to school. And the alternative is less than desirable: “My five-year-old is in kindergarten, and her experience with starting school is that it’s five hours of Zoom for a kindergartner. It’s not developmentally appropriate.”

As the schools in these neighborhoods, including Tufts’ Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, are reopening in the near future, there must be testing readily available for students and faculty. Tufts, given its recent achievements in slowing the spread of COVID-19 on campus and its mission to help the communities of Somerville and Medford, has the resources to help make this a reality.

Tufts has almost reached the halfway point of this semester, and Tufts’ COVID-19 rates remain low, with a transmission rate of 0.01 percent in the last seven days as of October 10. Tufts Community Union President Sarah Wiener said in a written interview, “I think it is truly incredible that we currently have no student cases on the Medford campus. I am really proud of how diligent students are being about getting tested, not having parties, and by and large wearing masks.” 

The surveillance/routine testing center for bi-weekly testing is located at 62R Talbot Ave in Somerville, while the Diagnostic Testing Center for symptomatic testing is at 51 Winthrop Street in Medford. Jason McClellan, senior director of Auxiliary Services, said via email that samples from 62R Talbot are collected and sent to the Broad Institute for diagnosis three times a day, and once a day from 51 Winthrop. 

The Broad Institute is conducting the campus-wide testing and is charging Tufts, along with other higher education institutions, significantly less than other labs. With the Broad Institute’s reduced rate for universities, each COVID-19 test costs $25, while other private labs charge up to $150 per test. Jim Hurley, Tufts’ treasurer and vice president of finance, wrote in an email that Tufts estimated that “the testing program, including both the Broad [Institute] testing and the support costs of [externally provided] EMTs, etc., will cost about $11 million this semester.” 

According to Michelle Bowdler, executive director of Health and Wellness at Tufts, EMT workers from local state provider Brewster Ambulance Service administer approximately 18,000 tests each week across Tufts’ four campuses. She said in an email interview that Tufts, along with the Broad Institute, has “implemented a comprehensive COVID-19 dry swab testing program…creating nuanced models that serve the urban, suburban, and rural communities where the four campuses are located.” 

Specifically for the Tufts Medford campus, McClellan explained that the testing sites were chosen through “a throughput analysis based on the estimated number of tests performed weekly combined with estimated testing time (from arrival onsite to exiting the site). Then, we looked for locations that would allow adequate space for flow and test observation while allowing individuals to be socially distant.”

However, while the program has been successful, its means of operation lack transparency and it misses out on potential opportunities.

The Tufts administration has remained publicly ambiguous regarding where the funding and resources for the testing program have come from and what the impact has been on our local communities. The administration has a history of being ambivalent when questioned about annual funding and budgeting processes. The Tufts administration has remained relatively silent despite Medford and Somerville residents’ scrutiny of Tufts’ reopening campus as it prioritizes economic interests over the community’s safety. Barring a few town hall meetings prior to the beginning of the semester, the administration failed to answer fundamental questions about the reopening plan. 

Hurley explained that Tufts is spending approximately $30 million this year to cover all aspects of the Tufts reopening plan. This includes COVID-19 testing, the construction of the “mods,” personal protective equipment (PPE), changes in dining and delivery services, and technology accommodations. Tufts is using its $983 million operating budget to fund its reopening plan: “The budget was not expanded, rather, these costs were accommodated by reductions in spending. The various actions we took to balance the budget [were] salary and discretionary spending freezes, hiring moratorium, executive compensation reduction, vacation carry forward cap, slowdown of capital projects, and school and central unit spending reductions.” 

Many Medford and Somerville residents suggest that Tufts, as a wealthy institution, has a responsibility to extend its resources to vulnerable local communities, given that the opening of the University poses a significant risk to the surrounding Medford and Somerville residents. Gideonse, speaking from his experience as both a Tufts alumnus and member of Our Revolution Medford, a grassroots organization working to advance progressive policies in Medford, emphasized the lack of care Tufts has for the community in an email interview: “What we need from Tufts is…to treat Medford more like home and less like a ‘host community.’”

In addition to the recent rollout of free COVID-19 testing for abutters, Tufts has conducted research on pooled swab testing. As many kindergarten and primary school students are going on their seventh month of strictly remote learning, the call to return to in-person school was another catalyst for the pooled swab study to take place. The study is examining the assumption that testing swabs in batches will be more cost-effective for K-12 schools, like those in Medford and Somerville, that are reopening under extremely tight budgets. This testing technique will allow for students to be tested efficiently at a much lower price in large numbers.

This is especially relevant to neighboring K-12 public schools, which are some of the communities most heavily impacted by the pandemic. Many of these districts do not have the financial resources to fully support their students. 

Director of Tufts Literacy Corps Cynthia Krug has been aware of this strain in the Medford and Somerville school systems. “There are children in both [the Medford and Somerville] communities who do not have computers at home,” said Krug over email, “I suspect some of these kids are falling through the cracks…even given the best efforts by the school districts.”

For some local parents, the pooled swab testing study should only be the beginning for Tufts’ involvement in the community. “We want Tufts to help pay to test our children…I personally would feel OK sending my own children to hybrid classes if our children were tested on the same schedule as Tufts students.” Gideonse suggested Tufts could use its lower rate with the Broad Institute to provide testing to local children at a lower cost. 

The return of students to school should not be inhibited by a lack of testing, when their learning at such a young, developmental age is more important than it is for college-aged students. College students can more easily attend their classes remotely, as described in an email interview with Professor Calvin Gidney III of the Department of Child Studies and Human Development. Gidney emphasized the importance of learning away from the screen for developing children, recounting the different modes in which young children are known to learn: physical/kinesthetic, aural/oral, visual, tactile, etc.

“Remote learning through platforms like Zoom is not well-suited for this type of multi-sensory, multimodal learning,” Gidney said. “Young children have difficulty concentrating only on what is going on on a computer screen, and will be more easily distracted by the people and things in their immediate environments than are older children and adolescents.” 

“Ultimately, we want to help school districts to be able to operate safely by creating a more affordable way for them to monitor the health of their students and personnel,” said Patrick Collins, executive director of Public Relations at the University, in an email interview. 

Now that the study has concluded, Collins explained that the University was “successful in demonstrating that pooled testing does in fact work,” and that it looked “forward to making the results known as soon as possible so [the University] can think about what it would take to roll out this kind of a program at scale in school districts.”

Still, the response to the study from surrounding communities has been mixed. Some residents are supportive of the goal of the research, but the degree of Tufts’ aid in the reopening of its neighboring schools is still being questioned. 

“We absolutely support any and all real efforts that Tufts makes to help its host cities,” Gideonse said. “Tufts has an unfortunate habit of gifting the surrounding communities with programs that are neither very helpful or important to residents.”