SHS implements pooled COVID-19 testing, citing cost and efficiency

A student takes a PCR test for COVID-19.
Student Health Services has begun pooling saliva samples for COVID-19 tests. (Nanako Noda • The Student Life)

This month, some 5C students were puzzled to discover their COVID-19 test results from Student Health Services read “Pnegative,” rather than the formerly reported “negative.”

The reason for their confusion? SHS began pooled testing on Nov. 1, and results shifted accordingly to reflect the new process in place. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pooled testing has a faster turnaround time and is a more cost-effective method of COVID-19 testing. Saliva specimens are combined and then tested as a whole. If the pool doesn’t contain enough viral material to be detected by the test, it comes back negative. But if it comes back positive, then the pool’s specimens are individually retested to determine who is positive. 

This method of testing is more effective in areas in which positivity rates are consistently and significantly low, the CDC said — which has largely been true for the 5Cs since the fall semester began. 

The Claremont Colleges Services spokesperson Laura Muna-Landa cited high vaccination rates and universal indoor masking as “mitigating factors” in keeping cases low. 

Pooled testing means that “fewer lab resources are used resulting in a more cost-effective approach when used for screening of a population that is highly vaccinated such as TCC students,” Muna-Landa said in an email, adding that the technique also results in improved turnaround times.

Pomona College Treasurer Robert Goldberg said that the colleges collaborated with SHS to implement pooled testing.

“The 7Cs discussed the issue with Student Health Services and agreed that with pooled testing we can continue to receive accurate and timely test results at a lower cost,” Goldberg said via email. 

But an increased pool size also increases the risk for false negatives because samples are diluted and genetic material might be harder to detect, according to the CDC.

SHS pools eight samples at once, according to Muna-Landa.

“There is no expectation that using pooled techniques will reduce the efficacy of our screening program in any meaningful way,” she said. 

According to the limitations stipulated in SHS pooled testing results, “If this specimen was initially screened by pooled testing methodology and validated in our laboratory as a Laboratory Developed Test, then a specimen with a low level of viral RNA may be negative in this procedure.”

Madeline Hoorn SC ’24 found out about the implementation of pooled testing through the newly resurgent social media app Yik Yak. 

I feel totally fine about it, but at first I thought it was a joke and I saw it on Yik Yak — stuff about them mixing our spit together — and I did not think it was real. And then it actually was [and] I was very surprised,” Hoorn said. “But I don’t feel negatively about it at all.” 

Carter Moyer HM ’24 also said he didn’t mind the change.

“I believe that they are going to be doing it in a safe manner,” he said. “There was some surprise when they did, and the results changed from ‘negative’ to ‘Pnegative’ for a lot of people, but overall I haven’t lost any confidence in the results.”

Naomi Keita PO ’24 said she wished students had been informed of the change, since it impacts the community at large.

“I understand that maybe it’s more efficient, for the people responsible for our tests and whatnot, but I feel like that could have been explained to us,” she said. “The entire system clearly changed. We just weren’t informed of that.”

Keita also questioned the efficiency of pooled testing if a positive result requires retesting for many individuals.

“Maybe it’s just a psychological phenomenon, but [it] might feel safer for us, the idea of individual testing,” she said. “But I guess so long as you can maintain the same efficiency, it maybe wouldn’t be a problem.”

Last month, Scripps College joined Pomona, Harvey Mudd College and Pitzer College in testing students through SHS, seeking to increase access and compliance with tests. Claremont McKenna College facilitates testing separately through Hamilton Health Box.

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