Hawaii universities have been largely distance learning due to COVID-19.
However, Brigham Young University-Hawaii hopes expanded testing will put the institution on the path to reopening.
The school will start testing all staff and students who are on campus weekly. It would be the first university in the state to do so.
“When the semester starts on January 6, we'll be offering testing Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” BYU President John Kauwe said.
“We plan to be testing close to 2000 people a week. Moving forward and just to add all of the Polynesian Cultural Center employees.”
The university is still largely online with a few in-person classes planned for the next semester.
However, about 700 international students have continued to live on campus because they cannot return home due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions.
The university is paying Nomi Health, a private healthcare company to run and process the tests.
“It is expensive,” Kauwe said.
“To us, it's worth it, for us in the circumstances we're in here, and the university, and the important role that we play in the community.”
Students and employees will take the saliva PCR tests and have their results back in about 24 hours.
Kauwe hopes that this strategy combined with vaccinations will put the university on track to resume in-person classes.
“As vaccines roll out and as we get into the spring, and hopefully into this fall, the testing will allow us to kind of maintain things at a level where we're ready to switch to more traditional, in-person educational experiences, sooner and more smoothly,” Kauwe said.
Mark Newman, the CEO of Nomi Health sees this method of testing as the key to reopening.
“You have the state or county or university covering the cost for the test,” he said.
“That's why we don't have to collect insurance or anything like that. Think of them as giant employers responsible for the community.”
Nomi Health supports 4% of the nation’s testing and worked with universities in Nebraska, Utah, Iowa and Florida.
He explained that their approach is atypical of traditional healthcare.
“Our approach is different,” he said.
“You have to have a digital first experience where people can sign up. They have to be able to assess themselves for symptoms and that doesn't have to require a doctor's order. It should be self-scheduled, and when they show up, it's a QR code. You scan it, you swab and they leave, and then we digitally share the results as soon as we have it.”
While there are about 3, 200 university students staff at BYU-- Newman says the program can ramp up to about 5,000 tests a week.
Kauwe thought the university was taking a risk with the tests because the more tests meant more cases being identified.
“There's significant risk as institutions consider what to do. They have to be willing to find cases, because that's what happens when you test,” he said.
“This is a virus that kills many people, but it also spreads with asymptomatic individuals in significant ways. You really have to have the courage to prioritize safety over PR. It's risky.”
The university’s testing program will continue through April, 2021.