Trinity College examines plans for Covid-19 self-testing booths

Widespread testing programme for staff and students could prevent clusters on campus

The testing programme at Trinity College could  help early detection of the virus among students and staff, and avoid partial or full closures of the university. File photograph: Alan Betson

The testing programme at Trinity College could help early detection of the virus among students and staff, and avoid partial or full closures of the university. File photograph: Alan Betson

 

Trinity College Dublin is examining plans for widespread Covid-19 testing of its 20,000 strong student and staff in a bid to prevent clusters emerging on campus, The Irish Times has learned.

The university’s committee on resuming activities met on Tuesday to discuss the plan, which could see self-testing booths in its city centre campus, similar to those installed in universities in the United States.

With students due to arrive in TCD from September 28th, the hope is that a testing programme will help early detection of the virus among students and staff, and avoid partial or full closures of the university.

The fine detail of the proposal – including exactly what type of testing would be deployed, and how the programme would be paid for – have not yet been identified.

The TCD committee will meet this week to make a decision on whether to push ahead with the idea, which would be among the first large-scale testing programmes in the State outside the core programme run by the Health Service Executive (HSE).

Any programme would be voluntary, sources stressed. A spokesman for the university confirmed it is “looking at testing to keep the university open. Information should allow us to prevent outbreaks”.

The spokesman said TCD authorities are “having lively discussions about surveillance testing. A decision that balances health concerns with practical considerations is likely to be made next week”.

‘Bundle of interventions’

The approach is broadly modelled on the experiences of other third-level institutions, including Boston University, where a free, inhouse screening and testing programme has been established.

Prof Colm Bergin, a consultant physician at St James’ Hospital and clinical professor of medicine at TCD, said the programme would have to be effectively communicated and managed, as it did not replace diagnostic testing or the need for social-distancing measures.

“We have to be very clear a negative test doesn’t mean no infection, and that it doesn’t become a licence to behaviours or socialisations that increase risks of transmission. It is like mask wearing, it is a component of a bundle of interventions to reduce risk.”

The TCD system would also have to interact and share information with the national testing and tracing programme, he said.

He added that it had to be made clear that if someone became symptomatic, they should still contact a doctor and seek testing, not wait for testing that might be periodically available under a surveillance programme.

The precise type of test to be used has not been determined, but self-administered saliva testing booths could see students depositing samples for analysis on arrival.

Academic sources at the university are thought to be enthusiastic about the idea, which may also present opportunities to study how the virus spreads, or is controlled, on campus. Labs to analyse samples could be set up on campus, sources said, or they could be outsourced to another laboratory or hospital.

The presence of a robust testing regime could also serve to attract overseas students to the university, one source suggested.