Want to simultaneously receive a $10 Charlie’s Bookstore & Fan Shop gift card, a cookie and peace of mind?
Take advantage of the free COVID-19 testing currently being offered to both University of South Dakota students and the public.
The tests – which involve individuals spitting into a tube rather than having a long wand inserted deep into one’s sinuses, are available at no cost in the Muenster University Center on the USD campus.
To help encourage public participation, free one-hour parking in the MUC parking lot and in the Burr House parking lot, located across Cherry Street north of the MUC, is also being offered.
South Dakota Department of Health (DOH)-supported testing of asymptomatic students has been available to USD students since last November. Students had to go through a drive-through testing process off-campus at the Sanford Vermillion Healthcare Center.
That presented two roadblocks to getting tested, said Kevin O'Kelley, assistant vice president of research compliance and the head of USD's COVID-19 Case Management Team.
“One is you had to have that thing shoved up your nose,” he said, “and second, you had to be at Sanford, off-campus, during a specified period of time.”
In December of last year, the SD DOH made an easier saliva COVID-19 test available to all South Dakota residents.
“Through this, any resident of South Dakota can have the kit sent to them and people can go online with a Zoom video and a monitor that watches you spit into a tube, and you mail it back in and they give you the results,” O’Kelley said. “That’s all free to the residents of South Dakota.”
Approximately 1,000 USD students took advantage of this arrangement and were tested during the Christmas break.
“When they came back from Christmas break in January, that test was still available and offered to students to take,” he said, “but they did not avail of themselves of it in very high numbers.
O’Kelley said the state Department of Health made USD an offer that was difficult to refuse.
“They said, ‘we will send you 3,500 saliva test kits if you can arrange and encourage people to take these tests,” he said. “We want to find these asymptomatic students and crush this pandemic because, as you know, many students are asymptomatic.
“Furthermore, they said, ‘Kevin, we know students may not want to stop and spit into a tube, so we will incentivize them; we will give them a $10 gift card if they get tested,” O’Kelley said.
That offer from the state allowed the university to launch its “Know Before You Go” testing effort the week before spring break began. Spring break ran from March 8 through March 12. The testing campaign began on March 1.
“We had a great number of volunteers among the staff of USD, as well as a great number of students who stepped up to help man the testing station,” he said. “We tested 1,000 people in a week. It was excellent. We had an excellent participation rate and we found people who were sick and they changed their spring break plans.”
“Starting this year, in the beginning of March, they (the SD DOH) made it available to asymptomatic students on campus,” O'Kelley said.
Tested continued in the MUC on March 15, and more students were identified as positive with the COVID-19 virus.
“The Department of Health told us that we could and should, based on CDC guidance, expand our testing to include the greater community, not just our students and staff,” he said, “because our bubble does not stop at Dakota Street.”
The university began spreading the word through posters placed throughout the community and social media and traditional forms of media.
“We want people that we can test anybody for free, there’s no charge, it’s the saliva tests and you get results back in about two days,” O’Kelley said. “It’s a very reliable test and the Department of Health is paying for it.”
People must wait 30 minutes after eating or drinking before taking the test, but may leave immediately afterwards.
The Department of Health will also give those who take the test a $10 gift card, a bottle of water, and, he said, with a laugh, a cookie.
Testing for the most part takes place in The Pit inside the MUC. On days when The Pit has other activities scheduled, the testing takes part on the second floor.
O’Kelley noted that approximately 30 percent of South Dakota’s population has received the COVID-19 vaccine.
“That vaccine percentage rate is skewed toward the elderly and our students aren’t vaccinated,” he said. “Our staff is not fully vaccinated, yet, so the other tool we have besides masks and physical distancing is testing.
“I am recommending that people get tested regularly, perhaps weekly, even, until they are fully vaccinated,” O’Kelley said. “We have the tests and there’s no reason not to avail yourself of testing. That way, you know.”
The growing rate of vaccinations in South Dakota and in the Vermillion community isn’t proving to be a hindrance to the testing effort.
“We advise you to get tested weekly until you’re fully vaccinated, which is two weeks after your second shot or two weeks after the Johnson & Johnson shot, if that’s the one you receive,” he said.
O’Kelley noted that individuals do not test positive for the virus after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The vaccines do not produce virus. People should know that,” he said. “If you have already had COVID-19, there’s no reason to come and get tested, but if you’ve been partially vaccinated, there is reason for you to come and get tested. You’re welcome to come and get tested.”
Individuals who receive positive results after taking a COVID-19 test offered at USD will be contacted by the South Dakota Department of Health.
“They (the department) will guide them through their period of isolation or quarantine,” O’Kelley said. “The Department of Health is the responsible party. We are helping them by administering the tests, but they don’t work for us … we assume everybody will do the right thing working with the state Department of Health, not with the University of South Dakota.
“We are not going to follow up with anybody who tests positive who is not a USD student or employee,” he said. “It’s entirely between the person and the Department of Health.”
The free saliva tests are a tool O’Kelley wishes USD had available last autumn at the beginning of the school year.
“We have it available now and we can crush this pandemic through testing until we are all vaccinated,” he said. “It’s non-invasive, nobody is touching you. You’re just spitting into a tube.”