BR.lsucovidpod.adv HS 001.JPG

One of four COVID-19 testing PODs sits on campus near the Nicholson Gateway, Friday, August 21, 2020, on LSU's campus in Baton Rouge, La. The testing centers will allow for a rapid testing for students, faculty and staff exclusively.

LSU student leaders are calling for mandatory coronavirus testing among students in a push to allow for student organizations to safely hold events and gatherings.

The heads of more than 40 student body organizations signed a letter Wednesday proposing how the school could scale back restrictions by making tests a requirement for students wanting to attend events.

When Gov. John Bel Edwards loosened restrictions last month and moved Louisiana into Phase 3 of reopening, LSU made few changes to how it has been operating since students returned in mid-August. That includes limits on gatherings of 50 people or more on campus.

Student body leaders touched on the importance of letting organizations resume some activities and events, saying in their letter that the groups are “the heart and soul of LSU.”

“Not only do our student organizations provide support, morale and purpose for students, they provide direction, mentorship and motivation,” the letter reads.

The push for wider testing follows a visit by White House Coronavirus Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, who met with student and LSU officials last month to discuss the schools’ response to the coronavirus.

During a series of roundtables, Birx said low levels of testing at LSU were a concern. But she praised the school's overall handling of the pandemic, including capping crowd sizes at Tiger Stadium and banning tailgating on game days.

Many of the student organizations have voiced worries about little momentum to reopen other parts of campus and say mandatory testing would create a path to do so.

Students are already required to take a COVID-19 test to attend football games, and Cox said one possibility would be similar requirements for attending other campus events.

“I think the administration sees the value of moving the campus to Phase 3,” said LSU Student Body President Stone Cox. “I believe they want to do that safely.”

School leaders have long mulled mandating testing for students, but balancing such a requirement with people’s health privacy is a hurdle that would need to be overcome, LSU Interim President Tom Galligan said in an interview Thursday.

Mandating tests for students going to voluntary events may pose fewer legal hurdles, he said, but “there are still some logistical issues with the whole thing.”

Galligan and other LSU leaders have asked students to get tested monthly to better monitor infections as bars and other restrictions have loosened in the state.

A campus-wide mandate would see LSU join only a select few colleges that have made similar moves.

Vanderbilt University requires weekly tests for undergraduate students, and some other schools have made it mandatory for students wanting to attend certain events.

Several universities across the country have struggled to contain the virus since students returned to campuses after may were sent home while the pandemic intensified in the spring.

LSU has so far avoided the same surge in cases other Southeastern Conference colleges have reported, but some observers have questioned the frequency of testing compared to other schools.

More than a thousand students and nearly a dozen employees at LSU have tested positive for coronavirus since late-August, according to the school’s online dashboard on Thursday. Those figures showed there were 60 active cases among students and 11 among employees, which is less than 1% of the school's 39,000 students and staff.

Younger, healthier people tend to have mild symptoms when they contract COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, compared to older adults and those with underlying health problems. An unknown number of people also may never develop symptoms but can still spread the virus through respiratory droplets when they cough, talk or even breathe.

While testing students monthly is better than nothing, recent medical literature suggesting that testing twice per week is more optimal for college-age adults, said Tulane Epidemiologist Dr. Susan Hassig. Contact tracing and efforts to quarantine and isolate people who test positive or were exposed to the virus is also important, she said. 

"Mandatory COVID testing can help to reduce spread within the student population and beyond, but to really keep a lid on things they would need to test more frequently than once a month,” she said.

LSU leaders have said the university can't enforce its way out of the pandemic and called on students, staff and faculty to do their part to keep cases under control.

Along with a mobile app allowing the LSU community to input potential symptoms, the school also relies on analyzing wastewater from nearly two dozen sites to detect potential viral hotspots on campus.

Wastewater testing beneath dorms and residence halls has given the school vital information for the scope of infections around campus. In recent weeks, positive cases collected from wastewater have dropped, as well as new cases in East Baton Rouge Parish, Galligan said.

Though mandatory testing would be yet another tool LSU would have for spotting and isolating new cases, it would only be limited to essentially a snapshot of who might be contagious, Galligan said.

“Whether you mandate or not, if you wear a mask and do the stuff you have to do, it’s a whole lot safer,” he said. “We know that.”


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad