GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota University System leaders are working to potentially provide coronavirus testing to thousands of college students before the start of the coming fall semester.

The goal of the proposal – which could see students tested at various sites this summer – is to safeguard campuses while also providing confidence to the communities in which they are located, according to NDUS leaders who spoke to the Grand Forks Herald.

“There's a deep conversation occurring around testing, and that is going to be vitally important,” Nick Hacker, chairman of the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education, said during a recent meeting with the Herald’s editorial board.

As long as capacity exists to do it, the goal will be widespread surveillance testing for COVID-19 at all NDUS campuses, according to Joshua Wynne, state health strategist and UND medical school dean.

“I can't think of a better way for a parent to have confidence in sending their child to an NDUS campus, or to instill confidence in the local community – that the students are welcome in the downtown restaurants and so forth – than knowing that we have surveyed the vast majority of them, and they are negative by culture,” Wynne said. “That is the goal. We're working really hard toward it.”

But how the system could achieve that goal and how it would be funded are topics still being discussed.

Would the testing equipment be centralized in Bismarck, or could there be satellite labs throughout the state? How often would students and staff be tested? Would the tests be mandatory?

Wynne said those questions are being actively discussed among the campuses and among the “smart restart” task force that was put together by the university system.

Wynne pointed to North Dakota’s testing success thus far as a reason why it may be possible. The state now has the ability to process up to 5,000 tests per day, although, as of earlier this week, it has never hit that amount. Gov. Doug Burgum announced this week that more drive-thru testing sites will be opened to get the state to that mark.

The proposal to test students yet this summer was brought up by Wynne, Hacker and NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott during a recent meeting with the Herald’s editorial board.

How could it work?

Emphasizing that plans are still being developed, Wynne said the process could include testing students days before students arrive on campus, potentially at testing centers in North Dakota’s four major cities and by alternative methods elsewhere.

Wynne said that would allow the system, and individual campuses, to identify positive cases before they enter campus. Students who test positive would be able to stay home and recover from the virus while doing their coursework remotely.

Testing may not be mandatory; instead, it would be expected behavior from students, Wynne said. Specifics of this have also not been worked out.

“This is what an adult does,” he said. “You're coming to college, you're an adult. We're treating you like an adult, act like an adult. Being an adult means being a citizen and being a good citizen.”

Follow-up testing throughout the semester also is being discussed, Wynne noted.

State board meetings, which are typically sparse during the summer, are planned to be held every month this summer as campuses prepare to return this fall, Hacker said.

How this sort of testing could be paid for is still being discussed. Hacker, Wynne and Hagerott were hesitant to give a figure about how much the testing could cost, but Hacker said it will likely be “in the millions to do this kind of testing.”

The testing could be paid for by a potential combination of the North Dakota Department of Health and the university system, possibly through the CARES Act and other coronavirus-specific funding areas.

Hacker said the system may need to ask for multiple rounds of funding as the system prepares to head back to in-person classes. There are hard costs, like masks and other physical items, to consider first. Then the system and the health department would consider testing costs in another application for CARES Act funds.

“We are approaching the CARES Act funding with probably a phased approach,” Hacker said.

The university system was approved for more than $44.4 million in CARES Act funding during the latest emergency commission meeting. That money does not include funds for testing directly. About $8.5 million is going to personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. The other $35.9 million was requested for technology software, instructional design resources and classroom/faculty restructuring to improve physical distancing measures on campuses.

North Dakota received around $1.2 billion in CARES Act funding this spring. Since then, the emergency commission has approved more than $900 million in funds for dozens of agencies.

Some campuses, like UND, are already in the process of purchasing face masks and other supplies, such as Plexiglas, for safety reasons.

Risk factors

College-age individuals generally are at a lower risk of severe complications due to COVID-19.

The 20-29 age group makes up about a fifth of the state’s overall 3,166 cases, as of Wednesday’s report. The age group has had 685 cases with eight hospitalizations, according to data from the North Dakota Department of Health.

During an April state board meeting, the risk factors for returning to campus life were discussed.

Dr. Paul Carson, director of the North Dakota State University Center for Immunization Research and Education, said that it will be important to protect those who are most vulnerable to the illness, including students, faculty and staff who have underlying health conditions.

“Most people who get it are going to do fine,” Carson said, noting a high percentage of the population who have contracted COVID-19 have minimal symptoms or are asymptomatic. “That said, there’s still going to be a noticeable, but small percentage, that would become seriously ill.”